Category Archives: Thriller

Slough House by Mick Herron

John Murray | 2021 (4 February) | 320p | review copy | Buy the book

Slough House by Mick HerronWe have reached the seventh novel in this truly brilliant series by the genius that is Mick Herron. If you haven’t read the others (and I can definitely recommend the audiobooks read by Sean Barrett if you want to catch up), then Slough House does stand up very well on its own but much of its impact does come from having met before these extraordinary inhabitants of Slough House. Known as the Slow Horses, these men and women have been cut adrift from M15 for the worst of reasons and Slough House is where they go to fester, under the disturbing control (or manipulation) of Jackson Lamb, a man you wouldn’t want to meet down a dark alley even if he were able to squeeze down it.

Relations between the secret service agencies of Britain and Russia are hotting up – or should that be colding down? – and Jackson Lamb and his ‘team’ of spy rejects are caught in the middle. But, should ‘Princess’ Diana Taverner, now M of M15, assume that they are a spent force then she couldn’t be more wrong. They still have tricks up their sleeves. The Slow Horses are under attack again, with their number in severe risk of reducing further but, incredibly, one former colleague appears to be back from the dead, albeit probably temporarily. It’s time to fight back.

The Slough House series of books are must reads if you have any interest at all in contemporary spy novels and, incredible as it is to say as they are all excellent, this latest novel is in my opinion the best of the series. One reason for this is that the characters and the building of Slough House itself are now well established. I love how the novels begin with a tour of the House by our omnipresent narrator. These sections always remind me of Bleak House and set the stage every bit as well. These novels reek with the corrupt atmosphere of Slough House – the cigarette smoke, the mess, the flatulence of Jackson Lamb, the booze, misery, guilt, dejection and failure. All is contrasted with the refined and clean rooms of the M15 headquarters in Regents Park. But in Slough House we become more aware than ever that rot can be found in that location as well – corruption, vice and the old boy’s network. This is a world where an Etonian Prime Minister is trying to hold everything together and in which ‘Yellow Vests’ march on the streets, ugly and extreme.

Despite all of the problems and power struggles at home, there is a war on between the spies of the UK and Russia, triggered by the novichok poisoning that has left a British citizen dead. This is a fascinating starting point for the novel and the plot is involved, complex and gripping throughout.

We meet old ‘friends’ in Slough House, each of whom is dealing with their own problems, addictions, mistakes and griefs. Roddy Ho is as abhorrent (and hysterical) as ever but we spend much of the time with River, a man whose very blood is steeped in the secret service. We are involved with these people. Even Jackson Lamb excels himself (his potential for violence has never been more coldly shocking). But we retain an emotional investment in them. That’s the extraordinary thing.

Mick Herron is a brilliant spy writer. He has created an incredible cast of men and women, both the rejects and the powerful. His portrayal of Diana Taverner is particularly well developed in Slough House and I enjoyed her appearances – especially the scenes between Diana and Lamb. The books are witty and chillingly cool and atmospheric, as the reader strives to reach out to characters in very real distress. And danger. A great deal of danger. As always, I was left wanting more. These novels are essential reading.

Other reviews
London Rules
Joe Country

The Two Lost Mountains by Matthew Reilly

Orion | 2021 (21 January) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Two Lost Mountains by Matthew ReillyJack West Jr is back! The Two Lost Mountains is the penultimate novel in Matthew Reilly’s corking series of thrillers in which Jack West Jr and his team must fulfil a sequence of ancient challenges in order to save the planet, the world, everything, from extinction. If, like me, you’ve been putting these books to the top of your reading pile for a fair few years now, then you don’t need me to tell you how good they are and how close we’re all getting to the end! But, if you haven’t read them before, then you won’t want to start with this one, the sixth, you’ll want to go back to Seven Ancient Wonders, which takes the story back to its beginning about twenty years ago. A lot has happened since then. A lot!

The Two Lost Mountains is not an easy book to review because, as you may well know, the previous book The Three Secret Cities (yes, the number countdown continues) ended at quite a crucial point and I don’t want to give anything away. Suffice to say, that this latest adventure picks up where the other one ends – we land on our feet and we’re off and running again.

Our heroes, and our baddies (and they are brilliant villains in these books – they’re evil on both a human and mythological scale, which I really enjoy) are focused. They know what they have to do before the final challenge. The sides are all declared and they’re desperate to beat each other to be the first to the Labyrinth, the goal of this novel. The main aim of these groups is, of course, to beat Jack and his team. There’s a sense that they just might do it. Jack’s team isn’t the size it used to be and you can bet that events in this book might shrink it further. You’re going to have to hang on when you read this. And there’s a new villain! Someone who wants nothing more than to welcome annihilation and die in a blaze of glory – how do you fight someone like that?

The adventures are breathless to read! I love the challenges in these books. The tension is enormous. The locations are great. The mix of thriller, classical history and mythology, disaster novel is so good. I love the references to ancient Egyptian and Greek history and legend. As you’d expect in an adventure such as this, archaeological remains do take rather a battering (to put it mildly). The potential destruction of the Earth is now closer than ever and so it’s fitting that we begin to see its impact on the wider world. It’s felt in these pages and in cities across the globe. I also love the experience of reading these books, with their diagrams, maps and charts. They’re so exciting!

At the heart of the novel is Jack West Jr, a man with so many responsibilities, who is now facing up to the passing years, and is more protective than ever of the younger people in his care. I really like Jack. I’m not sure he’s going to survive all this. His team members all leave messages for the others, to be read out in case they should die. We’ve read a few of them over the years. I worry that we’ll read Jack’s.

Matthew Reilly has written some fabulous thrillers over the years, including my favourite thriller of all time – Ice Station (the first novel to feature the beloved Scarecrow). I can’t wait for ‘The One Thingummy’ that will complete the Jack West Jr series and I also can’t wait for whatever will follow it.

Other reviews
Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves
The Tournament
The Great Zoo of China
The Four Legendary Kingdoms (Jack West 4)

The Three Secret Kingdoms (Jack West 5)

Shiver by Allie Reynolds

Headline | 2020 (21 January) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

Shiver by Allie ReynoldsFive old friends arrive in the remote French ski resort of Le Rocher for a reunion. Their past together had been a glorious one – they were professional snowboarders from more than one country, competing against one another in the exhilarating and dangerous Half Pipe competition. But that was ten years ago and it had ended in tragedy in this very place. Millie had been in two minds about whether to come, but the invitation had come from Curtis, a man she had always had feelings for, even though she had had a relationship with another of the five. And she knows that the reunion must have particular meaning for Curtis. His sister Saskia had died here all those years ago, her body never found, lost within the glacier. But Curtis, Millie learns, is there because of her. His invitation had come from Millie. And now they all find themselves in an isolated, empty resort and that’s when the games begin.

I absolutely adored Shiver! There has been a run recently of mysteries set in chalets and ski resorts and I cannot get enough of them. Shiver is the latest and it is fabulous. I’m a huge fan of ski sports, including the Half Pipe (from the warmth and comfort of my chair), and I am amazed by the skill and bravery of the athletes. It is an absolutely terrifying sport and this book gives real insight into the character of extreme sports and those who do it. All five are larger than life personalities. They have to be to do this thing. And this means that their relationships are intense, immediate and alive. I can’t say that I liked all of these people but I was mesmerised by them.

The location is fantastic. The action takes place off-season but Le Rocher is one of those places where ski sports can take place at any time due to the glacier, but what a dangerous place that is with its deep, hidden crevices. This means that the hotel is empty. The friends find no staff. It’s a frightening place, even before it all sets off. But Millie, Curtis, Brent, Dale and Heather still find themselves come alive in this place, reminded of those days ten years ago. Their lives are nothing like that now and they can reclaim some of that excitement from the past. I loved that sense of adventure and resilience and mourned with them the passing of the years and their youth. But then there is a real shift as they realise the danger they are in. It’s hugely exciting and a real pageturner.

This is another of those ‘locked room’ mysteries. They work so well in remote wintry settings and it’s very effective here. It’s dangerous outside but perhaps even more so inside. The tension and sense of danger builds further with the parallel story of the tragic events from ten years ago, which are told from Millie’s perspective. Millie is struggling to reach the snowboarding levels of Brent, Curtis and Saskia and there is a very real rivalry between Saskia and Millie as they compete for places in the British snowboarding team. Their rivalry becomes a monster but it is also complicated by some intense and complicated feelings. I love how Allie Reynolds brings the young Millie to life. She feels very real. And then there’s Saskia.

Allie Reynolds clearly knows a great deal about the snowboarding world and this fills the novel, giving it a satisfying air of authenticity and insight. The danger of this sport! I knew it was dangerous but I had no idea. That’s one side of the very real appeal of this novel. The other is the fantastic building of tension, rivalry, and danger matched by the eerie location and the sinister mood. And yet there’s a beauty here – the landscape, the glorious jumps of the snowboarders in the half pipe and the pure exuberance of youth, a time that is destroyed. What perfect reading this is for these cold winter nights.

There are some absolutely gorgeous hardback editions of this on the way so do look out for one of those.

The Stasi Game by David Young

Zaffre | 2020 (31 December) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Stasi Game by David YoungThe Stasi Game is the sixth and very possibly final novel in David Young’s superb series featuring DDR detective Karin Müller and her assistant Werner Tilsner. While you could certainly enjoy this novel as a stand alone read, I heartily recommend that you read the others first. Karin’s story, and Werner’s, is a compelling one and this is in many ways its conclusion, making it all the more powerful if, like me, you have become so fond of Karin over the years.

East Germany, 1982. Three years have passed since the events of Stasi Winter. Karin Müller and Werner Tilner are in disgrace, demoted and re-housed. Karin might work for the People’s Police but she’s been left in no doubt that it’s the Stasi who are controlling her career and her life. And now they choose to send her and Werner to Dresden where the body of a man has been found encased in concrete. The Stasi are taking a keen interest in the case and Karin becomes increasingly suspicious about why that might be so.

In a parallel story beginning in the 1930s, an English boy Arnold Southwick meets Lotti Rolf in Dresden while on holiday. The two become pen pals as both experience the horrors of war in the bombed cities of Hull and Dresden. Through Lottie’s eyes, we’re taken back to the fire storm that was Dresden in February 1945.

I am a huge fan of this series. Its setting in Communist East Germany is fascinating and brilliantly evoked by David Young, who clearly knows his stuff and puts it across so well. In The Stasi Game, as with others in the series, we’re also reminded of the legacy of World War Two on the DDR. I enjoyed the movement between the two eras and the surprising and engrossing development of the story. The scenes depicting the bombing of Dresden are truly powerful and shocking. With chapters set before, during and after the bombing, Dresden becomes a significant character in the novel in its own right.

The plot of The Stasi Game is fantastic, possibly my favourite of the series, and there are some changes in the relationships between Karin, Werner and with Jäger of the Stasi. I have always enjoyed the character of Jäger, the way that he hovers between good and evil, and he’s particularly good in this one. There is a strong sense that each has reached their limit, that something has to give, and that gives an irresistible tension to the book. We know how strongly Karin believed in the DDR and its values. Karin’s faith is challenged here stronger than ever. She knows now better than anyone what the Stasi are capable of. And we’ve reached the early 80s so time is running out for the regime.

All good things must come to an end but it’s always a shame when they do. I will miss my annual immersion in this world and with these characters but, if this is the end, it ends perfectly, it really does. If you haven’t yet read these books then now is the time.

Other reviews
Stasi Child
Stasi Wolf
A Darker State

Stasi 77
Guest post on the historical background of Stasi 77
Stasi Winter

The Demon Club by Scott Mariani

Avon | 2020 (26 November) | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Demon Club by Scott MarianiBen Hope is back! My all-time favourite action hero returns in his twenty-second adventure and this is cause for celebration indeed. As I always say when reviewing these books, they all stand alone. You can jump into the series at any time you wish, with any of the novels that particularly appeals. They take us to all parts of the world, on the trail of all kinds of baddies, in search of artefacts, or, as is more likely the case these days, to right wrongs, to protect the innocent and for vengeance. If you have read the series in its glorious entirety as I have then you will understand how much I love Ben Hope and how glad I am that he’s back.

Life is looking good for Ben. He may even be falling in love (again) and spends much of his time travelling between his home and workplace of Le Val in France and the home of Grace in the Scottish Highlands. One day a stranger sits down beside Ben on the plane and tells him that if he doesn’t kill Ben’s former SAS colleague Wolf then Grace will be killed. Ben is given evidence that leaves him in no doubt that this man is serious. But, when Ben catches up with Wolf, the truth emerges and both men must take on the Pandemonium Club, a sinister, demonic club whose members can be found at the very heart of the British establishment. Time is running out. Ben must destroy these monsters or die in the attempt.

This is a fantastic story and it puts The Demon Club high among my list of favourites in the series. It’s never too hard to believe that there’s devilry and evil in government and the establishment so that adds something rather pleasing to it all. The action never lets up and neither does the tension. The baddies are worthy of Ben and once more it’s never that certain to us that Ben will actually survive. Ben is an incredible hero but there’s always a sense that he may have used up all of his spare lives. He senses it, too. The end could come at any time and he’s driven to fight evil until the very end. Ben is a killer, and we are certainly made aware of it in this book as he makes some impossible decisions, but, as his surname suggests, there is something significant and almost legendary about his fight for good.

In The Demon Club we have the added appeal of (almost) twice the charisma, thanks to Wolf. Scott Mariani is a master of creating action heroes and he’s done it again here. It’s also good to see Tuesday and Jeff making more of an appearance in this adventure. You can always expect to meet old friends in these novels as Ben calls out for help from those he fought alongside years before.

It’s also good to see that Ben does less of the driving this time around, a relief, no doubt, for any car rental companies.

This is a fantastic series and The Demon Club is a fine addition to it. I could not put it down. We are so luck to have two of them a year – to have two novels from a series that I adore so much during this challenging, awful year is priceless. I long to see Ben again, hopefully next time it will be in happier times. But however it is I can’t wait to see him.

Other reviews
Ben Hope 7: The Sacred Sword
Ben Hope 8: The Armada Legacy
Ben Hope 9: The Nemesis Program
Ben Hope 10: The Forgotten Holocaust
Ben Hope 11: The Martyr’s Curse
Ben Hope 12: The Cassandra Sanction
Ben Hope 13: Star of Africa
Ben Hope 14: The Devil’s Kingdom
Ben Hope 15: The Babylon Idol
Ben Hope 16: The Bach Manuscript
Ben Hope 17: The Moscow Cipher
Ben Hope 18: The Rebel’s Revenge
Ben Hope 19: Valley of Death
Ben Hope 20: House of War
Ben Hope 21: The Pretender’s Gold

V2 by Robert Harris

Hutchinson | 2020 (17 September) | 312p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

V2 by Robert HarrisIt is November 1944 and V2 rockets rain down on London. They arrive silently, no-one knows where they will hit but when they do the devastation is sudden, terrifying and deadly. Germany is in retreat but now every resource they have, whether slave or fuel, is being put into the production of these rockets, which are then launched from moving sites in occupied Holland on the cities of London and Antwerp. Rudi Graf is a leading German rocket engineer. His dream had been to design and propel rockets to the Moon but his research was hijacked when Hitler came to power. Now he launches rockets to kill civilians, urged on by his Nazi commanders and propagandists. In this cold, bleak seaside town, Rudi becomes increasingly disillusioned.

Kay Calton-Walsh is a young intelligence officer in the WAAF. It is her job to try and detect launch sites from aerial photographs. She’s good at her job and she has also experienced herself the horrors of a V2 strike. When she gets the chance to do even more for the war effort she leaps at it. She joins a team of WAAFs in Belgium. Their task is to observe launches and calculate their origin. The mathematics is difficult, incredibly pressured and the equations must be done quickly. It’s impossible to forget that behind the numbers, lives are at stake and that every second counts.

Robert Harris is one of my very favourite authors. His books vary enormously – ancient Rome, the Vatican conclave, World War 2, an alternate future, 19th century France, and so on – but they are all expertly constructed, ingenious thrillers. The tension and drama can be found in strangely quiet moments, within enormously intelligent individuals who must face a significant challenge, whether that’s an engineer trying to predict the eruption of Vesuvius in Pompeii or a civil servant’s attempts to broker his own deal at Munich in 1939. These are places with secrets, where much can be underhand, and the stakes are enormous. In Rudi Graf we have another of these figures and he is a fascinating man who has an uneasy relationship with the rocket that he has created as well as with the people around him. He is very alone.

This is a novel in which one side faces off against another, where every act has a consequence. There are some fantastic, coldly horrifying sequences in which we follow a rocket through those four minutes from launch to target. The author takes us outside of the story to tell us how many people each rocket injures and kills. The facts are engrossing but they’re made real by the experiences of Kay Calton-Walsh. She is a busy young woman, liberated by war into being useful, with a role that peace would deny her. She also loves unwisely. But her focus is on stopping these rockets. I loved the chapters set in Belgium. How strange it must have been for the locals to have one army replaced by another in their town. There is tension in the novel from the rockets but it also comes from the relationship between the WAAFs and the local villagers.

V2 is a relatively short novel and we’re told it was written quickly through lockdown. It does have the feel of a novel written with urgency. It is true I would have liked it to have been longer. I would have liked more but what there is, is fantastic. The characterisation is spot on and the locations are richly evoked, especially the launch sites, which were lethal, manned by expendable, tired men, driven on by absurd targets who often became the victims of their own rockets. I’m fascinated by this subject – my grandfather went behind enemy lines to spy on V2 rocket production – and Robert Harris is the perfect writer to convey the dread and terror of these weapons while also respecting the science behind them. It’s an extremely tense thriller – rockets are launched time after time, day after day. They must be stopped.

I can’t wait for the next Robert Harris novel. It could be about anything. It might surprise me as much as The Second Sleep did. Whatever it is, I know I’ll be enthralled. His novel Pompeii remains my favourite historical novel. If you haven’t read it, read it!

Other reviews
An Officer and a Spy
The Second Sleep

Survive by Tom Bale

Bloodhound Books | 2020 (8 June) | 442p | Review copy | Buy the book

This is the holiday of a lifetime for Sam Berry and Jody Lamb and their young children Grace and Dylan. They have scraped and saved for years to afford this luxury holiday on a fabulous Adriatic island. The north of the island is also the playground of billionaire Borko, related to local powerful politicians, whose private jet Sam had noticed when their own charter flight was coming in to land. Sam and Jody win a competition, much to the disgust and envy of their fellow (and much richer) holiday makers. The four of them are taken to Borko’s villa to join in a party full of VIPs. It all seems too good to be true. And of course it is. The holiday is about to become a nightmare and this gorgeous island is no longer paradise – it is hell on earth.

I loved the premise of Survive and I’m delighted to say that it fully delivers on its promise, so much so that I read the novel in two sittings. This is unheard of for me in these strange times so I can only conclude that the novel gave me just what I needed – a thoroughly exciting adventure, an intriguing mix of heroes and villains, a fabulous holiday location and a plot that is so tense and exhilarating that I couldn’t wait to see how it would turn out.

We are lulled into a false sense of security by the novel’s gentle and evocative opening chapters. We are immersed in this resort and fully sympathise with Sam for buying a holiday that he can barely afford. We learn more about Sam and Jody, the extremely young parents, their difficult relationship, largely because they have been together since they were children. Equal time is give to their kids, Grace and Dylan. I loved reading about the resort, the other guests, the hotel rep and so on, and knowing that everything was about to combust raised the tension. I did find the end of this section, when the family arrive at the villa for the bash, a little slow – by this point I was so ready for the adventure to start – but then it all takes off and from that moment on I couldn’t stop reading it.

There’s something of The Hunger Games about the ordeal which the family must face and also in its set up. It works so well, especially because of its setting on an island which is an ideal holiday location. The dream becomes a nightmare and this is so effective, putting me off white sandy beached islands for some time. The action and drama is incredibly tense and thrilling but along with the thrills comes insight into the family’s characters. This nightmare becomes a catalyst for change, not least because neither Sam or Jody believes that they’ll survive. It’s time to take stock and re-evaluate their lives and relationships even if it is too late.

Our feelings towards Sam are conflicted but we do nothing but root for him once the nightmare begins. It’s so painful reading about the fear that takes hold of the children’s minds. It is Jody, though, who shines out of the pages as she comes into her own. I’ll say nothing more about what happens to the family as you need to feel the tension and terror of it for yourself.

Survive is the perfect holiday read whether you’re on a luxurious exotic island yourself or, as is more likely the case these days, at home. It’s probably safer at home, Tom Bale puts us in no doubt of that. Tom Bale writes so well, driving the action along, keeping us and the poor hapless family squirming at what befalls them while we urge them on. If you want a fast, exciting holiday thriller to immerse yourself in then look no further than Survive.

The Secrets of Strangers by Charity Norman

Allen & Unwin | 2020 (7 May) | 352p | Review copy (ebook) and bought audiobook | Buy the audiobook | Buy the treebook

It is a weekday morning and people have places to be, except for Neil, a former teacher who now sleeps rough on the streets beside his dog Buddy. He wakes up to discover money in his begging cup and so he takes it along to Tuckbox Cafe in Balham, London. Shots are fired and the cafe’s owner Robert is gunned down, dying in Neil’s arms. Most people escape, fleeing for their lives, but a few remain and they become the hostages of the shooter, a young man called Sam. Mutesi is a nurse, who fled Rwanda, and is now trapped with her grandson whom she was taking to school, Abi is a barrister on her way to defend a young woman accused of harming her children, and then there’s Neil, who has lost everything. All of them must try and reach Sam, to save themselves. Outside the cafe is negotiator DI Eliza McClean, whose job it is to get everyone out alive.

The Secrets of Strangers is my second audiobook ‘read’ and I found it an engrossing listen. I have heard some good things about this novel and so I was looking forward to it. It has a fantastic premise and I enjoy action thrillers that take place over just a few hours, almost as if events are taking place in real time. The start is excellent. I really enjoyed meeting Neil and was gripped by witnessing the shooting through his eyes. Chapters then move between each of the characters – hostages, shooter, negotiator – giving us a fully rounded portrayal of what goes on in a siege situation, practically and in the minds of those who must survive or work for the survival of others, including the killer.

It’s all very tense and I quickly grew invested in the characters, especially Matusi, Eliza and, unexpectedly, Sam. However, towards the middle of the book I realised that I knew exactly how this was going to go and found the time spent exploring the back histories of each of the characters dissipated the tension and left little room for surprises. I would have liked far more of Eliza, a character I really enjoyed, with enormous pressures on her shoulders. As the novel progresses we spend much more time in Sam’s head. I found his story extremely painful to read, too painful, actually. Credit must be given to an author who can trigger such a strong reaction in their reader but I was relieved when we were returned to the present day in the cafe.

The Secrets of Strangers is a powerful, disturbing read, that is more character-driven than I expected. The audiobook is quickly paced, the narrator rushes through it, distancing me more from the characters than I think I would have been if I’d have read the words on a page. Nevertheless, I was so keen to find out how it all ends and the final chapters of the novel are utterly engrossing.

The Split by Sharon Bolton

Trapeze | 2020 (28 May) | 400p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Felicity is as far from her home in Cambridge as she can be, studying the glaciers of South Georgia in Antarctica. But even here isn’t far enough. Felicity is terrified, constantly looking over her shoulder for her ex-husband Freddie who has now been released from prison. And then last ship of the season arrives and on it is Freddie. Felicity must hide. But what brought about this fear and terror? To find that out we must return to Cambridge and the events of nine months before when Felicity works with her therapist Joe to discover the reason for her bouts of amnesia. She must unlock the secrets hidden within her, while evading those people she knows are watching her.

Sharon Bolton is a genius when it comes to telling the twistiest, most gripping of tales, supported by fascinating, fully-realised characters. The Split is another stand alone psychological thriller and it demonstrates yet again that Sharon Bolton is a master of the genre. This is an immersive read as we try and find our way into Felicity’s thoughts, desperate to find out what is going on, now and in the past. It’s a pleasingly complex story with Felicity and Joe at its heart. Felicity is a fascinating character but so, too, is Joe. I loved his relationship with his mother, a detective. This adds another layer of mystery as well as menace because his mother has a crime to solve.

I loved the sections set in South Georgia most of all and I did wish that book of the book were set there. It’s described so beautifully, capturing the desolate wintry beauty of the place, reminding me of the author’s earlier novel Little Black Lies, which was set in the Falkland Islands. Sharon Bolton is superb in evoking a sense of place, connecting her characters to their setting so deeply. This is also evident here, including the sections set in Cambridge, a place that comes alive at night, when the homeless and the lost begin to stir.

These novels are never as one expects, they’re always original and often jaw-dropping. The Split is no different. The novel develops in astonishing ways. I can say absolutely no more than that! But if you’ve read one of Sharon Bolton’s novels before, as I would certainly recommend, then you will know that you have a treat in store.

Other reviews
Little Black Lies
Daisy in Chains
Dead Woman Walking
The Craftsman

The House of Lamentations by S.G. MacLean

Quercus | 2020 (9 July) | 410p | Review copy | Buy the book

The House of Lamentations by S.G. MacLeanIt is 1658 and Cromwell’s England is no longer what it was. Cromwell himself, who lives in palaces as a king in all but name, is rumoured to be dangerously ill while his regime tortures and brutally executes minor royalists for little more than unwise gossip. People are leaving the country, sick at how events have played out. But, while disenchanted Puritans head to the Americas, royalists head eastwards to Bruges where the exiled King Charles II plots with his impoverished court to reclaim his throne. And that is where we find Damian Seeker, a secret agent of Cromwell’s spymaster John Thurloe. Seeker, undercover as a carpenter, has a spy among Charles’s circle and the royalists are determined to identify who it is. Seeker hears word that a woman is being sent to sniff them out. Seeker knows that his identity would also be revealed and his fate would be sealed. But in a city full of English refugees, with both a convent and a brothel a focus for new arrivals, where is this woman to be found? The race is on to be the first to discover her identity.

The enigmatic Damian Seeker is one of my favourite figures in historical fiction and I always look forward to these books. Sadly, The House of Lamentations, the fifth in the series, is the last. This novel brings together the men and women, spies and double agents of the previous books and so, while it is a self-contained story in many ways, I would definitely recommend that you read these five books in order. The fourth novel, The Bear Pit, especially influences events here.

Knowing that The House of Lamentations is the last in the series, I went into the novel with some trepidation. The enigmatic Damian Seeker is one of my favourite figures in historical fiction and I always look forward to these books. I will miss Seeker very much. But history tells us that Cromwell’s Commonwealth didn’t last and that 1658 was a turning point in its demise. This was a dangerous time, of tension, uncertainty and cruelty. All of this is brilliantly captured by S.G. MacLean. The opening chapter leaves us in no doubt as to the brutality and unhappiness of Cromwell’s London and England in 1658. It’s a shocking opening and it feels like a relief when we’re then taken to Bruges and the shabby court of the king in exile.

Bruges is a change of scene for these novels and I really enjoyed discovering the city as it would have been in the mid-17th century. Bruges is in the control of Spain, Jesuit priests walk its streets. The city’s institutions are brought to such vivid life here – its convent, its brothel and its prison, all of which influence events. Then there is the house containing four of Charles’s supporters, not all of whom are as they seem. One of them is someone we got to know well in The Bear Pit. The reader knows this can’t end well. But there are new people to meet here, too, including the extraordinary and resiliently mysterious Sister Janet, an Englishwoman who became a nun in Bruges over fifty years ago. I thoroughly enjoyed the chapters spent in her company. Nobody knows what she’s up to. The Seeker may have met his match. I’ve always liked Lady Anne in these books. There is conflict and chemistry in her relationship with Seeker and, once more, this is one of the highlights of The House of Lamentations.

There is much more to this novel than its tale of spies and plots. There is another story running through it of a young woman with a terribly scarred face. Seeker is driven to find her and learn her story, even though he knows this puts his mission in jeopardy. We, too, are desperate to know. The curious link between the convent and the brothel is also explored so brilliantly as we learn about the choices many women were forced to make. There is an undercurrent to this novel. This is a man’s world in so many ways but the novel draws on all life, male and female, and, with the exception of the tremendous Seeker, my favourite characters are its women.

The House of Lamentations is a fine finale to a superb series set during one of the most fascinating, exciting and dangerous periods in English history. I was fully immersed in its story and its setting, which is brought to life due to all of the historical detail, whether it describes town streets, buildings, clothes, furnishings or people. This is an excellent historical mystery, spy thriller and adventure which is, as always with this series, beautifully told. If you haven’t read these books then now, with the series complete, is the perfect time to do so. You will not be disappointed. I look forward to going wherever this wonderful author next takes us.

Other reviews
The Seeker
The Black Friar
Destroying Angel
The Bear Pit