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December 4, 2016

DAZZLING DEBUTS … Chosen by Rachel Amphlett

rachel-amphlettSome authors save the best for last. Others, like Joseph Heller with Catch 22, produce such a devastatingly good first novel that the rest of their lives are spent trying to better it. Rachel Amphlett has a new novel out – watch out for our review of Scared To Death – but she has taken time out of her hectic schedule to look at a few brilliant ‘first in series’ crime novels.

We’re getting ready to move house in the New Year, which means at some point I’m going to have to box up all eight bookshelves of crime and thriller books that are currently lining the walls of one of the rooms downstairs.

After sorting out which books would have to go to the charity shop – unless scientists work out a way to clone me in the next fifty years, there’s a very good chance I’ll never get to these a second time around – I was left with some of the crime series that have stayed with me for years, and that I’ll be hanging onto for a long time yet.

This got me thinking: what is it about these first in series novels that still capture my imagination after all this time? And what is it about these books that influence my own writing?

the-black-echoMichael Connelly – The Black Echo (Harry Bosch #1)

Connelly captures so much about his famous detective Harry Bosch in this first novel in the series, but does so without making you feel bombarded by information.

Once a “tunnel rat” in the Vietnam jungle, and now a police detective with the LAPD, Harry Bosch isn’t what I’d call a dynamic character, but he is compelling. It’s his careful consideration of each case that crosses his desk, and the way in which he cares about every single victim no matter their background.

Equally as compelling as Harry Bosch is Connelly’s descriptions of the cityscape within which the stories are based; each location is described in such a way that, for example, by the time you read about Harry heading home of an evening in the latest book in the series, you almost know which CD track he’s going to put on to listen to. What have I learned from reading the Harry Bosch books? Setting is as important as character.

dead-simplePeter James – Dead Simple (Roy Grace #1)

Maybe not a book to give to your fiancée before his stag night…

The first chapter of this book has to be one of the most memorable introductions to a detective series I’ve ever come across, and I won’t spoil it here by telling if you if you haven’t yet read it. At the end of the first chapter, you’re left in total shock and dying to know what happens next. Told from several points of view, the whole story is turned on its head about two-thirds of the way through and then it’s a fast-paced page-turning read to the end.

What have I learned from reading the Roy Grace books? The books may be named after Roy Grace, but there’s a great ensemble cast, and this is something that felt natural to me as I wrote the first in the Kay Hunter series. I wanted those co-stars to be considered just as important as Kay. After all, no police detective works alone, and there are myriad experts on hand to help solve the case.

silent-screamAngela Marsons – Silent Scream (Kim Stone #1)

Angela’s Kim Stone books are modern twisty thrillers that bring the genre bang up to date into the twenty-first century and I’ve no doubt this series will endure for a long time yet.

I remember when the first in the series, Silent Scream, was published – everyone was utterly blown away by the story and I recall seeing the book cover everywhere online. In Silent Scream we meet Kim Stone for the first time and quickly realise that if she is to stop a sadistic killer, she’s going to have to confront some very dark memories of her own. Kim Stone is ruthless in her quest for justice for the victims in these novels, and her investigations lead her into dangerous physical and emotional places.

What have I learned from reading the Kim Stone series? The modern detective story has evolved for the twenty-first century, and so have female protagonists.

Lee Child – Killing Floor (Jack Reacher #1)

I remember picking up a second hand copy of Killing Floor about three years after it was first published, and it really was the first time I’d ever heard of this strange lone wolf character by the name of Jack Reacher.

What have I learned from reading the Jack Reacher books? Use short sentences to keep the action moving along. You don’t often see long sweeping sentences in Lee Child’s novels – they’re punchy, to the point, and don’t waste time. A bit like Jack Reacher, you might say…

the-killing-floor

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SCARED TO DEATH … Between the covers

RAIf there is a league table which ranks ‘Every Parent’s Worst Nightmare’ events in terms of trauma, torment and terror, having a child kidnapped must come near the top. It could be argued that death is at least final and offers – however bleak a prospect that may be – a sense of closure and a chance for the living to rebuild their lives. But kidnap? Uh-uh; cue uncertainty, recrimination, the anxious waiting for that ‘phone call, the wondering, the sheer agony of not knowing. That is the fate of Tony and Yvonne Richards in the latest novel from Rachel Amphlett (left) when they return to their Kent home from a trip to Milan to find that their daughter Melanie has been taken. Neither Tony nor Yvonne is cut out to be Bryan Mills /Liam Neeson, and so they scrape together the ransom, make the drop, and frantically drive to the derelict industrial estate where Melanie, they hope, will be waiting for them. What they actually find delivers a killer blow – literally.

Now, it is inevitable that the police become involved. The investigating officer, Kay Hunter, has endured that most bitter visitation that a young woman can suffer – a miscarriage. Was it the result of workplace stress? No-one will know for sure, but there can be few workplaces as stressful as a police incident room during a major enquiry. Not only was the Detective Sergeant up to her eyes in the action, but she ended up the subject of a professional standards investigation. Now, despite having been exonerated, the experience has scarred her physically and psychologically and left her with a powerful enemy in the shape of DCI Angus Larch. In spite of all this, she must put personal matters to the back of her mind, and do everything in her power to find the killer of Melanie Richards.

Scared To DeathHunter tugs away at the few available frayed threads of the investigation until she has enough twine to weave a recognisable tapestry that shows a victim and those culpable for the crime. Larch does his best to belittle her efforts, but she has a strong supporter in her immediate boss, DI Devon Sharp. There is a very clever twist in the final third of the story when it becomes apparent that the latest kidnap victim is the estranged daughter of a member of the investigating team. It has become commonplace for fictional coppers to have chaotic personal lives, but there is a feelgood corner of this novel where the reader can take comfort in the warm relationship between Kay Hunter and her veterinarian husband, Adam.

Some crime novels are very location-dependent and none the worse for that, but Rachel Amphlett doesn’t waste much time on the setting. We know we are in Kent, somewhere near Maidstone, but beyond that all the focus is on the people and the action. Regular readers of police procedurals will be at home with the whiteboards, the frustrated peering at indistinct CCTV footage, the tension of the team briefings and the ingrained sweaty ambience of the interview rooms. One of the strong points of this novel is the way Amphlett handles the pace. She takes a calculated risk by letting us know early in the piece who the bad guys are, but shows her narrative skills by ratcheting up the tension in a nicely judged upward curve of anxiety. In the end we know who did what to whom, and have a working knowledge of their motivation. This novel doesn’t break new ground, but is thoroughly readable and is an enjoyable journey through a familiar landscape.

You can order a copy of Scared To Death here.

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