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Thursday, 23 October 2014

‘Murder on High Holborn’ by Susanna Gregory

Published by Sphere,
2 February 2014.
ISBN: 978-1-84774-433-2

March 1665.  War has been declared on the Dutch, so it’s a disaster when England’s new flagship, HMS London, is scuttled on her maiden voyage ... and what link does this have with the death of a fortune-telling courtier in a fashionable brothel?  Secret agent Thomas Chaloner has two weeks to find out...

This lively historical who-dunnit has a huge cast of characters, ranging from Prince Rupert (dashing Cavalier turned middle-aged grouch), through Temperance the brothel keeper and the wonderfully crazy 5th Monarchists, down to Grisley Pate and his enormous family, all drawn with Dickensian humour.  The atmosphere of Restoration London was evoked by numerous small touches: the ever-present mud, the darkness lit by flickering torches, the abrupt changes to country in what’s now central London.  The plot moves along at a leisurely pace, with corpses a-plenty, exciting action sequences and a satisfying ending.  Although this novel is well through the Chaloner series, that wouldn’t matter to a new reader, and Gregory’s many fans will enjoy meeting the series characters again.

An amiable period romp.
Reviewer: Marsali Taylor

Susanna Gregory was raised in Bristol. After graduating from university, she spent three years in Leeds, as an officer in the West Yorkshire Police, before taking up an academic career. She has served as an environmental consultant, doing fieldwork with whales, seals and walruses during seventeen field seasons in the polar regions, and has taught comparative anatomy and biological anthropology. She is the creator of the Thomas Chaloner series of mysteries set in Restoration London as well as the Matthew Bartholomew books, and now lives in Wales with her husband, who is also a writer.

Marsali Taylor grew up near Edinburgh, and came to Shetland as a newly-qualified teacher. She is currently a part-time teacher on Shetland's scenic west side, living with her husband and two Shetland ponies. Marsali is a qualified STGA tourist-guide who is fascinated by history, and has published plays in Shetland's distinctive dialect, as well as a history of women's suffrage in Shetland. She's also a keen sailor who enjoys exploring in her own 8m yacht, and an active member of her local drama group.  Marsali also does a regular monthly column for the Mystery People e-zine.

‘Among Others’ by Jo Walton

Published by Corsair,
21st March 2013.
ISBN: 978-1-47210-653-7

I’d better begin with a health warning.
This book came to the wrong review site. By no known definition could it be described as crime or mystery. You don’t even have to open it to learn this; there’s an enormous clue on the cover – it won two awards, the Hugo and the Nebula: major prizes both, but for science-fiction and fantasy. And you’re still not convinced, google the author and you’ll find she is an established and acclaimed writer of fantasy, with no track record in crime fiction.

It isn’t even cross-genre. Well, it is – but Young Adult crossed with fantasy rather than crime crossed with anything. The only nod towards crime is the psychological, or possibly psychic, damage the protagonist has suffered at her mother’s hands. And maybe the bullying she encounters at school, but that seems to be normal behaviour, however unacceptable.
On the other hand... Woman cannot live by crime fiction alone. Twenty pages in, I was hooked. I loved it. I ached to know how it would finish, but I didn’t want it to end.

It’s slightly weird, but slightly weird appeals to me, speaks to me, in fact. Mori, the fifteen-year-old narrator, doesn’t so much believe in magic and fairies as assume their existence as demonstrable and unremarkable fact. She casts spells and they work, or, if you prefer, after she casts them, the things she expects to happen actually do happen.

It’s written, quite beautifully, in the form of a diary covering ten life-changing, coming-of-age months in Mori’s life. Right from the start she hints at the tragedy in her past: a few months earlier she and her twin sister set out to stop their mother from using black magic for her own selfish and terrible ends, and the price of their success was her sister’s life and her own physical well-being. Part of the story’s charm is the slow, subtle unfolding of this backstory, which ultimately leads to her mother’s attempt at revenge, and a huge decision for Mori herself.

As has often been the case in the small amount of fantasy I’ve read, many of the characters are two-dimensional, but somehow in this context that’s how it should be. It’s as if Mori is viewing them as figures on a moving canvas, not connecting or interacting with them. When she does encounter people she can connect with – her warm and loving South Welsh relations, a lively book group she discovers, or magicks up, depending how you want to see it – they fill out and become real.

Mori herself is a glorious mix of insecurity, certainty, desperation, hope, self-doubt – the whole adolescent nine yards with added physical disability, and a passion and appetite for books which I struggle to rival. At the end, when she proved herself more powerful than the controlling mother who caused such damage, and began to see a way out of the labyrinthine tangle of being a teenager, I wanted to cheer.

Crime fiction it’s not. A wonder and a joy, as it was described by the leading critic quoted on the cover, it certainly is. If I hadn’t already fallen in love with it, a couple of lines of page 329 would have clinched it: They could take the money from building enough nukes to kill all the Russians in the world and give it to libraries. What good does an independent nuclear deterrent do, compared to the good of libraries?
Doesn’t that say it all?
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick

Jo Walton is a Welsh-Canadian fantasy and science fiction writer and poet. Born in December 1964.  She won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2002 and the World Fantasy award for her novel Tooth and Claw in 2004.

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning.     
She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

‘Sandrine’ by Thomas H Cook

Published by Head of Zeus,
9 August 2013.
ISBN: 9781781855133

Thomas H Cook is new to me, but since reading Sandrine I have read two more of his novels and am devouring a third.  It's long time since I read such literate, perfectly-pitched prose, perhaps not since Donna Tartt's The Secret History.  The narrator is Professor Sam Madison, not a likable man, who looks down on and disassociates himself from everyone around him.  He is married to the beautiful, talented, enigmatic Sandrine, also a professor at the same university where he teaches.

Coming home one evening, he finds his wife dead in bed, the victim of an apparent suicide.  But the police are not so sure, and Sam finds himself in court, on trial for murder.  This is a courtroom drama with a difference: over the course of nine days we learn just about everything there is to know about Sandrine and Sam, from the early days of their courtship to the present day.  Gradually, Sam begins to suspect that Sandrine has rigged her own suicide to look like murder – by himself.  Has she?  And if so, why? 

Did he, didn't he?  Did she, didn't she?  Cook keeps us on tenterhooks until the very end of the book.  I thoroughly recommend this book … and his others. 
Reviewer: Susan Moody

Thomas H Cook  is the author of eighteen books, including two works of true crime. His novels have been nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award, the Macavity Award and the Dashiell Hammett Prize. The Chatham School Affair won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel in 1996. His true crime book, Blood Echoes, was nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1992, and his story "Fatherhood" won the Herodotus Prize in 1998 and was included in Best Mystery Stories of 1998. His works have been translated into fifteen languages.

Susan Moody was born in Oxford is the principal nom de plume  of Susan Elizabeth Donaldson, née Horwood, a British novelist best known for her suspense novels. She is a former Chairman of the Crime Writer's Association, served as World President of the International Association of Crime Writers, and was elected to the prestigious Detection Club. Susan Moody has given numerous courses on writing crime fiction and continues to teach creative writing in England, France, Australia, the USA and Denmark.  In addition to her many stand alone books, Susan has written two series, on featuring PI Penny Wanawake (seven books) and a series of six books featuring bridge player Cassie Swan.

‘The Last Room’ by Danuta Reah

Published by Caffeine Nights.
ISBN: 978-1-907565-74-8 (Paperback)

Danuta Reah is a past master of the art of complex characters, and the cast she has created for The Last Room is no exception. The two protagonists, Will, an almost-disgraced retired senior detective, and Dariusz, a Polish lawyer with a political agenda and a deeply personal interest in the central storyline, carry the narrative in turn, while everyone else weaves in and out.

Briefly: Ania, a voice identification expert, has apparently committed suicide after her evidence in a key deportation case has been discredited. The retired cop is her father and the lawyer is her fiancé. Each has his own reasons for digging deep into the web of intrigue that surrounds Ania’s death, but they dislike each other on sight, which makes for additional complications.

It would be easy for the narrative to fall into did-she-jump-or-was-she-pushed cliché, but Danuta Reah is better than that; the question is, somewhat inevitably, posed very early on, but it gives rise to many other questions. It soon becomes clear that there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye, and everyone has his or her own agenda. The reader, at least this one, is soon wondering exactly what all these various agendas are.

As complicated plots go, they don’t come much more complicated than this one. Past, present and future all have a part to play, but almost to the last few pages, I was never sure how all the threads were going to come together, and who the bad guys were.

The story twists and turns; other well-drawn characters move in and out of the spotlight; and the drab urban landscape of post-Glasnost Poland forms a background which makes things even less clear and more complex. All the settings have a sense of reality. Reah is clearly familiar with the edgy place eastern Europe has becoming since it emerged from communist lacklustre, and the quiet Scottish community and noisy English city are just as lifelike.

I gave up trying to second-guess the convolutions of the plot very early; it was the characters that kept me hooked. Even the minor ones are sharp and real; Dariusz’s elderly father, unwell and confined to a dreary flat, and Jack, the gruff, kind-hearted car park attendant in Will’s remote Scottish village are as palpable as other with far bigger roles.

I’m not normally a big fan of conspiracy theory novels, but this one kept me reading to the last.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick

Danuta Reah , who also writes under the name Carla Banks, was born in South Yorkshire. She comes from an academic family but opted out of formal education at the age of 16. She worked in a variety of jobs from barmaid to laboratory assistant, in a variety of locations, including a brief spell in Kingston, Jamaica. She says "I didn't plan my working life that way, but it was probably the best apprenticeship a writer could have."  She went to university as a mature student and then went on to teach adults in Further and Higher Education. She taught linguistics and creative writing, and in the course of this, refined her own writing style. "I didn't find my voice until I started writing crime. My first novel was based on a rather creepy encounter I had on an empty station platform one evening - it's a story I often tell when I do author events, but beware: it needs bright lights and a crowd." She published her first novel in 1999, Only Darkness, the rights to which have been purchased by Escazal Films. Her novels have been published internationally: USA, Germany, Holland, France, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Italy, Spain, Finland, Czech Republic. Crime - or at least dissent - runs in the family. Her father was a refugee from Stalin's Belarus; one of her ancestors, John Woodcock, was hung, drawn and quartered in 1646 for his religious beliefs.
Danuta  is married and lives in South Yorkshire with her artist husband. She  is past Chair of the Crime Writers' Association. She is a regular speaker at national and international conferences and literary festivals, and has appeared on radio and television.

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.