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Look For Me . . . Between the covers

Lisa Gardner Portraits

Boston Police Department dates back to 1893 and has employed many brave and distinguished real-life officers, but the Queen of fictional Boston cops is surely the redoubtable DD Warren. Author Lisa Gardner first introduced her in the 2005 novel Hide, which was later adapted as a Ted Turner made-for-TV movie of the same name. The episodes in Sergeant Warren’s career now run into double figures, and now she returns in Look For Me – aided and abetted by none other than Flora Dane, who featured in Find Her (2016). Flora is a victim turned avenger. Kidnapped and tortured for 472 days by the sadistic Jacob Ness, she emerged from the horror of her captivity and has now focused her energies on extracting violent revenge on men who abuse women.

Look For MeWe are taken to an autumnal Boston. Initially, Warren has nothing more on her mind than the consequences of giving in to the demands of her young son that they should adopt a dog. Her domestic reverie is rudely and violently interrupted when she is called to a house in the Brighton district of the city, where she is confronted by a scene of carnage. Householder Charlie Boyd is sitting on his sofa, as dead as a doornail. His girlfriend Juanita Baez is in the kitchen, shot as she was taking something from the cupboard. In the bedroom, even worse horrors await. Lola and Manny Baez, two of Juanita’s children, are clasped in a protective embrace, but just as dead as the adults.

Warren is faced with an immediate question. Where is Roxanne, Juanita’s elder daughter, and where are the elderly dogs which were a vital part of thr Baez family? The missing Roxanne has recently joined a social media group, founded by Flora Dane, which aims to provide solace, advice – and suggestions for pay-back – for female victims of male violence. Thus, Flora and DD are reunited in an uneasy alliance. Their task? To find the elusive Roxanne and determine if she is responsible for the gunning down of her immediate family.

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The story plays out with three narrators. Flora Dane speaks for herself, as does Roxanne, via a series of school essays on the subject of The Perfect Family. The actions of DD Warren and her colleagues on the BPD are reported in third-person observation. Lisa Gardner is nothing if not a consummate storyteller, and she paces out the action in classic funnel-fashion. Everything – action, timelines and discoveries – narrows down to the point when the killer is revealed.

As Warren and Dane pursue their parallel investigations, we become a fly-on-the-wall of a perfectly horrendous foster home, presided over by a grotesque woman whose only concern is to make sure that her outgoings – food, heat, lighting, clothes – are well below what the state of Massachusetts pays her to look after an ever-changing roll call of damaged children.

In the meantime, however, we have a masterclass in how to blend a police procedural with a domestic Noir thriller. The main characters – DD Warren and Flora Dane – are convincing and authentic. Above all, Lisa Gardner makes them enough to compel us to care about what they think and what happens to them. If, as a crime writer, you can do this, then the battle is won.

Lisa Gardner’s website is here

Check buying options for Look For Me here

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THE CONFESSION . . . Between the covers

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Here’s a challenge for you. A challenge for writers, and for those who like to write about writing. Begin your novel like this. Time? The present day. Scene? A comfortable room in an Irish house. Characters? A man and woman watching television, and an unknown intruder. Action? The intruder hacks the man to death in front of his horrified wife. Placement in book? The opening pages. Now, write a compelling and hypnotic novel of 400 pages which follows this dramatic beginning, and keep your readers hooked until the last paragraph.

The ConfessionJo Spain not only takes on the challenge, but she meets it head on and completes it with subsequent pages of The Confession which manage to be, as night follows day, bravura, intense, full of authentic and convincing dialogue, utterly mesmerising and, in places, literally breathtaking. A countryman of Spain’s began his most famous novel with Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” She counters with:

“It’s the first spray of my husband’s blood hitting the television screen that will haunt me in the weeks to come – a perfect diagonal splash, each droplet descending like a vivid red tear.”

Now that is as fierce an opening paragraph as you will ever read. The speaker is Julie McNamara. The victim – of a perfectly timed swing with a golf club – is husband Harry, a financier who has recently fallen from grace as his empire took a huge hit in the 2008 financial crash. He is still formidably rich by most people’s standards, but his reputation as some kind of investment Midas has been destroyed. We hear the story of his rise and fall through Julie’s voice. She says, of the beginning of their love affair:

“Young, innocent, hopeful, in love. That was us at the beginning of our fairytale. But here’s the thing about fairytales. Sometimes they’re darker than you can ever imagine.”

Jo Spain continues to defy crime fiction convention by eschewing the standard police procedural manhunt. Instead, the killer of Harry McNamara turns himself in at the nearest police station in his blood-stained clothes and announces himself as John Paul Carney. At this point, Spain introduces us to a very distinctive member of An Garda Síochána, Detective Sergeant Alice Moody:

“Gallagher’s senior detective sergeant arrived at the top of the stairs, sweat patches already forming under her armpits from the three flights, her thin mousy brown hair gleaming from the perspiration emanating from her scalp.Every time that woman took the stairs she gave a convincing performance of somebody on the verge of a heart attack.”

 So DS Moody is not cut out to be a TV producer’s idea of a marketable sharp, charismatic – and stunningly sexy – detective. But she is bright. Very, very bright, as we are to discover.

The Confession unfolds like a beautiful but deadly flower opening its petals, one by one. Our narrators are the widowed Julie, Alice Moody, and JP Carney himself. A phrase here and there, a paragraph or two, an apparent revelation, and we think we know why JP Carney has bludgeoned the living daylights out of Harry McNamara. But this is Jo Spain’s skill. A page at a time, she weaves her spell and points us in the direction of the truth. Except we come to a dead end. A literary rockfall. An emphatic no-entry sign.

JSOf course, we get there in the end, and understand why JP Carney has exacted such an emphatic revenge on the handsome, charismatic and plausible Harry McNamara, but sometimes book reviews have to stop dead in their tracks, and say, “Trust me, this is a brilliant novel, but to tell you any more would be little short of criminal.” Yes, The Confession is a brilliant novel. Yes, I read it through in one sitting, deep into the early hours of a winter morning. Yes, I am a fan of Jo Spain (right). Yes, if you don’t get hold of your own copy of this, you will receive scant sympathy from me. The Confession is published by Quercus, and will be on sale as a Kindle from 11th January, and as a hardback from 25th January. Check online buying choices here.

For reviews of earlier Jo Spain novels, click on the titles below.

Sleeping Beauties

Beneath The Surface

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ROBICHEAUX:You Know My Name … Between the covers

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Chat-Author-James-Lee-BurkeJames Lee Burke (left) turned 81 in early December 2017. When I picture the face of his majestic but flawed hero, Dave Robicheaux, it is his creator’s face I see. The Robicheaux books have been filmed several times but the best one I have seen is In The Electric Mist (2009) starring Tommy Lee Jones, and Mr Jones is good a ringer for Mr Burke – and my vision of Robicheaux – as you will ever see.

Dave Robicheaux is a police officer in New Iberia, Louisiana, a few miles down the road from its big sister, New Orleans. Burke introduced him in The Neon Rain (1987) and, since then, fans like me have followed Dave’s every move, in and out of alcoholism, sharing his visions of ghostly Confederate troops trudging their spectral way through the swampland and along the fringes of the bayous, and bringing down bad men with the help of his bail skiptracer buddy, the elemental force known as Cletus Purcell.

Robicheaux: You Know My Name has an end-of-days feel about it. Is this endgame for Robicheaux? Emotionally, he is in a bad way. His wife (the latest of several) Molly is dead, innocent victim in a case of reckless driving.

“I could not sleep Sunday night, and on Monday I woke with a taste like pennies in my mouth and a sense that my life was unspooling before me, that the world in which I lived was a fabrication, that the charity abiding in the human breast was a collective self-delusion …”

His adopted daughter Alafair is away writing her novels and making her way in the world. Even Tripod, his three-legged raccoon pal is no more. Choose your metaphor; a gathering wind bearing a scent of impending catastrophe, a cloud of retribution, a murmured lament for the dead and dying becoming louder by the minute? Robicheaux describes one of the characters;

“I was old enough to know that insanity comes in many forms, some benign, some viral and capable of spreading across continents, but I believed I had just looked into the eyes of someone who was genuinely mad and probably not diagnosable, the kind of idealist who sets sail on the Pequod and declares war against the universe.”

All very gothic and, perhaps, melodramatic, but fans of the series will know not to expect half measures. The overpowering Louisiana climate does not do pastel shades: it never drizzles – the rain comes down like magnum bullets clanging into tin roofs; the wet heat saps the spirit, and makes men mad, and women madder.

Cover“That weekend, southern Louisiana was sweltering, thunder cracking as loud as cannons in the night sky; at sunrise, the storm drains clogged with dead beetles that had shells as hard as pecans. It was the kind of weather we associated with hurricanes and tidal surges and winds that ripped tin roofs off houses and bounced them across sugarcane fields like crushed beer cans; it was the kind of weather that gave the lie to the sleepy Southern culture whose normalcy we so fiercely nursed and protected from generation to generation.”

The plot? Obviously there is one, and it is excellent, but such is the power and poetry of James Lee Burke’s writing that the action is often completely subsumed by the language. A grim ostinato to the story is Robicheaux’s bitter resentment towards the man whose reckless driving killed Molly. Said driver is found dead, and Robicheaux become prime suspect in a murder case..

“How do you handle it when your anger brims over the edge of the pot?You use the shortened version of the Serenity Prayer, which is “Fuck it”. Like Voltaire’s Candide tending his own garden, or the British infantry going up the Khyber Pass one bloody foot at a time, you do your job, and you grin and walk through the cannon smoke, and you just keep saying, “Fuck it”…..”Fuck it” is not profanity. “Fuck it” is a sonnet.”

As his problems mount, Robicheaux succumbs once more to his personal demon. It is , however, a demon shared by a great many other of his fellow citizens:

“If anyone tells you he he’s from New Orleans and doesn’t drink, he’s probably not from New Orleans. Louisiana is not a state;it’s an outdoor mental asylum in which millions of people stay bombed most of their lives. That’s not an exaggeration. Cirrhosis is a family heirloom.”

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Bent fellow cop Spade Labiche is involved in all manner of dirty deals and deeds, while former top federal informant – and thoroughly vile human being – Kevin Penny is found dead in his trailer, slowly murdered by an electric drill. Meanwhile, as Clete Purcell plays foster parent to Penny’s young son, dying mobster Tony Nemo attempts to bankroll a Civil War movie written by an angry novelist whose wife may (or may not) have been raped by the charismatic Trump-like politician, Jimmy Nightingale. Robicheaux attends one of Nightingale’s campaign rallies.

“He gave voice to those who had none – and to those who had lost their jobs because of bankers and Wall Street stockbrokers and NAFTA politicians who had made a sieve of our borders and allowed millions of illegals into our towns and cities…..Was he race-baiting or appealing to the xenophopia and nativism that goes back to the Irish immigration of the 1840s? Not in the mind of his audience. Jimmy was telling it like it is.”

James Lee Burke is nothing if not passionate about how powerful people abuse the weak, the poor, the defenceless and the gullible. His bad men are satanic and implacable – until they meet the destructive force-field created when Robicheaux and Purcell – The Bobsy Twins – go into action. This is a bleak book emotionally, riven with anger, yet full of the poetry of loss and mortality.

“…the dead are still with us, like the boys in butternut marching through the flooded cypress at Spanish Lake, and the slaves who beckon us to remove the chains that bind them to the auction block, and all the wandering souls who want to scratch their names on a plaster wall so someone will remember their sacrifice, the struggle that began with the midwife’s slap of life, and their long day’s journey into the grave.”

Robicheaux: You Know My Name is out today, 2 January 2018, in Kindle and will be published as a hardback by Orion on 11th January.

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LOCK 13 . . . Between the covers

 

 

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Lock 13Lock 13 features Chris Honeysett, a private detective whose cases I had never read before, despite this being the sixth in what is clearly a popular series. The previous episodes are Headcase (2005), Slim Chance (2006) Rainstone Fall (2008) An Inch of Time (2012) Worthless Remains (2013) and Indelible (2014). Honeysett, like his creator Peter Helton (more on Helton’s website here) is an artist operating near Bath in the south-west of England. His professional investigations do not pay all his bills, and he supplements his income by selling his paintings when he can, and teaching drawing and painting classes from his picturesque home, a former mill which he shares with his girlfriend, Annis.

Honeysett is engaged on an extremely dull – but possibly lucrative – case involving a gentleman called Henry Blinkhorn, an angler who, when his boat overturned in the Severn Estuary, tragically drowned. Or did he? The company faced with a hefty life insurance payout to the Widow Blinkhorn have their doubts, and Honeysett is hired to prove that Mr B is alive, well, and pulling several skeins of wool over the eyes of Griffins, the people who are taking the million pound hit over the death, or not, of the unfortunate fisherman.

A welcome distraction from the tedious observation of The Chestnuts, the Blinkhorn’s six-bedroom house in one of the many salubrious areas of Bath, comes when Honeysett’s regular model for his life drawing classes, a young lady called Verity, inexplicably disappears. With Annis – also an artist (and noticeably more successful) away painting a mural for a rich celebrity, Honeysett decides to delve into Verity’s disappearance but, as is the way with these things, he discovers that he may have bitten off more than he can chew. Verity was friendly with some rather disreputable characters, including a verminous colony of New Age Travelers who, when they are not meditating or actually traveling, have their grimy fingers in a lucrative drug dealing business.

It seems that young Verity has come into funds rather suddenly, and has realised her oft-longed-for ambition to buy a canal boat and remove herself from the stresses and strains of city life by taking to the water. By a rather fortuitous set of coincidences (both for himself and the plot) Honeysett manages to borrow a canal narrow boat in which he sets off to pursue the errant Verity. As both he and we quickly discover, “pursue’ may be over-egging the pudding, as the laws of canal boating restrict speed to 4 mph. As Honeysett makes his stately – and occasionally wayward – progress in the ironically named Dreamcatcher, he soon has a growing number of conundrums to solve. Who, for example, are the two mysteriously sunglassed gents who appear to be following him in their cabin cruiser? And what is the true story behind the tragic drowning of Neil, former owner of Dreamcatcher, in the murky depths of the titular Lock 13?

Helton-Peter-2-262x350Sometimes a novel is so delightfully written that a reader can reach the last page with a smile and sense of contentment, despite the fact that nothing very dramatic or shocking, at least by the standards of some modern thrillers, has happened during the 200 pages or so which have made up the narrative. Lock 13 is one such book. Peter Helton (right) tells the story through the eyes of Chris Honeysett, and the style is fluent, conversational, occasionally erudite, often witty – but always very, very, readable. Established fans of the Honeysett series can feel duly smug that the amiable painter-sleuth has found another convert, and they can rest assured that I shall be working my way through the file of Honeysett’s previous cases. Lock 13 is published by Severn House, and will be available from 29th December.

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THE ISLAND . . . Between the covers

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5179+K0SrKLThe Island is the latest episode in the eventful partnership between two gentleman detectives in Victorian London. James Batchelor is a former journalist, a ‘gentleman’ in manners and intelligence, if not by upbringing, while his colleague Matthew Grand is an American former soldier, and scion of a very wealthy patrician New Hampshire family. We first met them in The Blue and the Grey (2014), when Grand – who has recently served with the victorious Army of The Potomac – comes to London in pursuit of one of those who conspired in the murder of Abraham Lincoln on 15 April 1865.

It is now the spring of 1873, and Grand is treating his colleague to a holiday in American, in the shape of an invitation to his sister’s wedding. Poor Batchelor, however is, at best, an indifferent sea voyager but, after eleven emetic days on board the Frisia, the pair eventually arrive safely in New York, having left their London house in the somewhat clumsy hands of their housekeeper, Mrs Rackstraw, who is somewhat less discreet and high minded than another lady fulfilling a similar function to another pair of gentlemen a mile or so across town in the busy thoroughfare of Baker Street.

On their journey north to New Hampshire, Grand and Batchelor pick up Edward Latham, a New York Times hack, who has blagged a wedding invitation in order to track down a participant in the recent financial corruption scandal known as the Tammany Hall affair – and Grand’s Uncle Josiah, who is disturbingly rich, but often – and equally disturbingly – drunk. The wedding guests duly reach the settlement of Rye and the palatial house causes Batchelor to gasp in admiration, despite being assured by Grand that it is little more than a weekend retreat compared to their main establishment.

cruise culture 012A few words in praise of the author. Meiron Trow (right) is one of the most erudite and entertaining writers in the land. Over thirty years ago he began his tongue in cheek series rehabilitating the much-put-upon Inspector Lestrade, and I loved every word. I then became hooked on his Maxwell series, featuring a very astute crime-solving history teacher who, while eschewing most things modern, manages to be hugely respected by the sixth-formers (Year 12 and 13 students in new money) in his charge, while managing to terrify and alarm the younger ‘teaching professionals’ who run his school. I was well into the Maxwell series before I realised that MJ Trow and I had two things (at least) in common. Firstly, he went to the same school as I did, although I have to confess he was a couple of years ‘below’ me and would have been dismissed at the time as a pesky ‘newbug’. Secondly, and much more relevant to my love of his Maxwell books, I discovered that we were both senior teachers in state secondary schools, and shared a disgust and contempt for the tick-box mentality characterising the so-called ‘leadership’ of high schools.

Mark TwainI digress, so back to New Hampshire in the early spring of 1873. The guests begin to arrive, and the ‘downstairs’ staff under the stern eye of the enigmatic butler, Waldo Hart, are emulating the proverbial blue-arsed fly. Trow, at this point, gleefully takes the template of the traditional country house mystery, and has his evil way with it. Despite the title of the book, we are not quite in Soldier Island (And Then There Were None) territory, but Rye is far enough from Boston to make sure that when the first murder happens, the real policemen are too far away and too engrossed with their city crime to pay much attention, even when when of the possible suspects is a certain Mr Samuel Langhorne Clemens. (left)

With Martha, Grand’s sister, well and truly hitched to a young man who may well be an utter bounder, and two hatchet-bludgeoned corpses lying in state in the stables, the Boston police eventually arrive in the shape of Chief Savage and Sergeant Roscoe. The amateurs and the professionals regard each other with ill-disguised suspicion, while Trow scatters a healthy basket of Rubrum Clupidae to keep us all guessing. Don’t be misled by Trow’s endless enthusiasm for verbal gags into thinking that this is a ‘cosy’ novel. Far from it. The finale is dark and bloody, and shadows real-life 1873 events on the remote and windswept Smuttynose Island. The Island is published by Severn House and is available now.

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BLAME . . . Between the covers

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JeffAbbottI guess we all play the game. We know the rules, every one of us. No expensive equipment required and no real skill needed, that’s for sure. The Blame Game, it’s called, and when something bad happens in the world it plays out on every social media feed, every newspaper paragraph and every breathless sentence from every permatanned TV news anchor. Bestselling thriller writer Jeff Abbott (left) convinces us that it’s also very popular in the little Texas town of Lakehaven where, just two years ago, a car carrying two teenage friends plummeted off a lonely road and down into a deep gully.

When the paramedics arrived, all they could do for young David Hall was to get his body clear of the wreckage – and then zip up the body bag. Jane Norton, the driver? Well she got lucky. After a fashion. Multiple broken bones, but nothing fatal. And a major bang to the head, which has left her with partial amnesia. When a suicide note surfaces, written by Jane, the Lakehaven rumour mill starts to grind, and it grinds exceeding small. Obviously, Jane intended to kill herself, and she took David – the trusting, popular, talented, handsome David – down with her.

Two years on, Jane has learned to recognise her mother and her college friends, but as to what actually happened on that dreadful night, nothing. Nada. A big fat blank. This big fat blank makes her the perfect hate figure for many former school and college buddies, and she has shrunk into what is left of herself. She has left home, and is ‘crashing’ in the dorm room of one of the few friends who is still prepared to give her – literally – house room.

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Jane and David were inseparable childhood friends. Their parents still live next door to each other. Perri Hall and her soon to be ex- husband Cal no longer speak to Laurel Norton who is also on her own for a different reason. Her husband Brent is three years dead from a gunshot from his own weapon, either intentionally or maybe through a tragic accident; the gossip jury is still out but, like Old Jacob Marley, Brent Norton is as dead as a doornail.

The two year anniversary of David’s death is being commemorated in the modern way, along with other tragedies, baby scans, bad moods, good moods, cute cats, photos of ‘what I had for dinner’ and Trump memes on the (strangely familiar) social media hub, Faceplace. David is the martyr, Jane and her mother equally culpable as the villains.

blame017In a nutshell, the novel is an account of Jane’s attempt to find the truth about what actually happened on that dreadful night on High Oaks Road. We have to assume – because we are seasoned readers of crime thrillers – that Jane is innocent of a brutal suicide mission which claimed the life of a boy whose only crime was to be in love. As Jane turns over rock after rock, and unpleasant critters scuttle about, exposed to the light of truth, the novel builds to a dramatic and breathless finale. As might be expected from a writer of Jeff Abbott’s pedigree, he keeps his cards close to his chest, and keeps us guessing until the final few pages.

I particularly loved how Abbott works the Jane character; at the beginning, despite her having suffered a terrible physical trauma, she still comes over as being something of a pain in the butt; as the novel develops, and the web of possible suspects widens, her courage and determination not to take shit from anyone began to grow on me. Remember, as well as having lost her memory, the boy they tell her was her best buddy is also gone, and she has completely forgotten how to talk properly to people. As for normal social and conversational responses, they are also an unfathomable mystery. Blame came out earlier in the year in hardback, but will be available in paperback from 28 December.

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THE GATHERING DARK … Between the covers

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DI Tony McLean is an Edinburgh copper who is just a tad different from your standard tick-box fictional Detective Inspector. Yes, he works long hours, to the detriment of his home life, and doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with his superiors. Yes, he is occasionally given to special insights into crimes and criminals and, of course, he always gets his man (or woman). McLean, though, is something of a breed apart. His personal background is, well, unusual. After unhappy schooldays at a private school he hated, he has inherited money and property which make him a wealthy man after his parents were killed in a plane crash. He is gifted – or cursed – with a heightened sense of perception which may, or may not be, occult in nature. Despite his unwillingness to come to terms with this, he has an interesting friendship with a transvestite spirit medium called Madam Rose, who should be a comic character, but is anything but that.

billwaters_JamesO__10525-smaller-683x1024I should add, at this point, that James Oswald (left) is not your regulation writer of crime fiction novels. He has a rather demanding ‘day job’, which is running a 350 acre livestock farm in North East Fife, where he raises pedigree Highland Cattle and New Zealand Romney Sheep. His entertaining Twitter feed is, therefore, just as likely to contain details of ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ obstetrics as it is to reveal insights into the art of writing great books. But I digress. I don’t know James Oswald well enough to say whether or not he puts anything of himself into the character of Tony McLean, but the scenery and routine of McLean’s life is nothing like that of his creator.

TGDMcLean is going about his daily business when he is witness to a tragedy. A tanker carrying slurry is diverted through central Edinburgh by traffic congestion on the bypass. The driver has a heart attack, and the lorry becomes a weapon of mass destruction as it ploughs into a crowded bus stop. McLean is the first police officer on the scene, and he is immediately aware that whatever the lorry was carrying, it certainly wasn’t harmless – albeit malodorous – sewage waste. People whose bodies have not been shattered by thirty tonnes of hurtling steel are overcome and burned by a terrible toxic sludge which floods from the shattered vehicle.

The police are desperate to reassure the Edinburgh public that this is not a terrorist attack, but a tragic accident, a fateful coming together of coincidences. McLean and his team are tasked with the grim business of identifying all those who died in the crash, but also with investigating the company which owned the lorry, and what on earth the chemical cocktail was that literally burned the flesh and bones of those who came into contact with it.

As McLean starts to peel back the layers of deception and corruption which are wrapped around the truth about the disaster, he senses a sinister element in the case which exudes the stench of pure evil, far beyond that of the already grim death toll. His own personal life – most crucially involving his partner Emma, carrying their unborn child – becomes entangled with the case. McLean’s investigations turn over a heavy stone which reveals myriad guilty and repulsive things scuttling around as they are exposed to the light.

Sometimes titles of crime and thriller novels seem to have been chosen more to catch the eye of potential purchasers rather than for their relationship to the plot, but in this case those three words are chillingly apt. This disturbing story may start off as a relatively straightforward police procedural. All the familiar elements are there: the internal rivalries between officers, the bustling incident room, decent men and women trying to keep a lid on the thousand misdemeanours a big city throws up every week. But. But. A word to the wise. No, scrap that, and replace it with a much more suitable phrase – borrowed from a nightmarish MR James ghost story from 1925 – A Warning to the Curious. I have to tell you that The Gathering Dark is superbly written and gripping from the first page to the last, but it turns hellishly black and may trouble your dreams.

Click the link to read the Fully Booked review of an earlier DI Tony McLean novel, Written In Bones. The Gathering Dark is published by Michael Joseph/Penguin, and will be available on 25th January 2018.

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If I DIE TONIGHT … Between the covers

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It is October in New York State
. ‘Fall’, of course, to the residents. Nothing much disturbs the ultra-ordinary Hudson Valley town of Havenkill, however, even the yearly arrival of the quaintly named ‘Leaf Peepers’ – folk who come to witness the glorious golds and reds of the autumn trees. Until one-rain lashed night when the rickety police station is being battered by the strong winds and the shoddily repaired roof is, once again, only just holding back the weather. Above the noise of the storm, there is a battering in the door as if the devil himself was trying to force his way in. It is not the devil, but a frantic woman:

“…make-up smeared, weeping in her bright red raincoat and rainbow-dyed hair, wet as something dredged up from the river. ‘There’s been an accident’.”

614rKZRqmfLThe woman is a former rock star, now reduced to providing the warm-up act to tribute bands in dingy roadside venues. All that Amy Nathanson has left to remind her of her brief spell of fame as ‘Aimee En’ is her former manager, now disease-stricken, and a luridly painted vintage Jaguar car, which she calls her “baby”. Now, on this grim night, as she drives home from her less than star-studded gig, she has been involved in a terrible accident. Her precious car has been hijacked but, even worse, a teenage boy lies broken in the road, run down by the car and its illicit driver.

Liam Miller is rushed to hospital. Dozens of his high school friends rush to be as close as they are allowed to his bedside but their vigil, for all its tears and prayers, is fruitless. He dies without recovering consciousness. The Havenkill police now have a rare case of murder/manslaughter on their hands, and the community – parents and youngsters – are plunged into a frenzy of speculation about the identity of the hooded teenager who stopped Amy Nathanson on the pretence of selling her drugs then mugged her and drove off in her car, leaving Liam Miller – who Nathanson thinks tried to come to her rescue – at death’s door by the roadside.

This superb thriller is peopled with strongly drawn characters. Pearl Maze is one of the police officers investigating the death of Liam Miller. She began her career in the nearby city of Poughkeepsie, but a tragic event from her childhood caused her to be victimised by her fellow officers, and she is trying to build a new life out ‘in the sticks’. The Reed family, mother Jackie and sons Wade and Connor, are central to the story. Jackie is a divorcee trying to hold down a job as a realtor, while trying to be both mother and father to her boys. She is driven to Xanax by the behaviour of the older son, Wade. His moods and unpredictability are far worse than the usual hormonal torment of teenage boys. What is going on in his secret life? Where was he on the night that Liam Miller died? We see Amy Nathanson, for all her weaknesses and hankering after faded glory, as a genuinely troubled woman cast adrift in a sea of her own insecurities and quiet desperation.

Alison GaylinAlison Gaylin (right) knows full well that every human interaction in the modern world – birth, death, triumph, failure, joy and misery – has to play out on social media, and so it is after the death of Liam Miller. We see the messages and memes, the grief and the anger, flash around the Havenkill cyberspace as the speculation about the identity of Liam’s killer intensifies. Even the makeshift shrine outside Liam’s family home is dwarfed by the virtual tribute page set up by his parents.

The plot is beautifully laid out to lead us first in one direction, and the another. Two thirds of the way through the book I began to infer just a hint of the truth about Liam Miller’s death, but I would never have guessed the real reason behind Wade Reed’s refusal to absolve himself from the crime – Gaylin waves her magic wand and carries off a show-stopping piece of literary theatre. If I Die Tonight is published by Arrow, and is available now on Kindle. It will be out in paperback at the end of December, and in hardback in 2018.

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A DEATH IN THE NIGHT … Between the covers

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GFSAfter I had read Death In Profile, and saw that it was billed as the first of an intended series, I did softly uttered something akin to “hmmmm…?”, quietly questioning if there was any room in the crowded contemporary crime fiction market for books which unashamedly borrowed tropes and mannerisms from books written seventy years ago. I have just finished A Death In The Night, the fourth in the series, and I am now a true believer, and devoted disciple. Guy Fraser-Sampson (left) has created a delightful repertory company of characters, and set them to work catching killers in the highly exclusive avenues and cul de sacs of London’s Hampstead.

Principally, we have a quartet of investigators. Chief Superintendent Simon Collison, Inspector Bob Metcalfe and Sergeant Karen Willis all work for the Metropolitan Police, while Dr Peter Collins is a psychologist and criminal profiler who acts as consultant to the Hampstead coppers. In the first three books, Metcalfe and Collins are jointly suitors of the radiant and ravishing Willis. This strange ménage à trois has now resolved itself, however; Collins has Willis to himself, and Metcalfe has a new object of his passion. (To read our review of an earlier book in the series, A Whiff of Cyanide, just click the link)

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 Naturally enough, this being a murder mystery, the examining pathologist discovers not only that Bowen was murdered by smothering, but she was also three months pregnant. Further investigations by Collison and colleagues uncover that Bowen was in a relationship – along with countless other bedazzled women – with a libidinous and charismatic QC, Simon Fuller. It seems that he and his wife have come to ‘an arrangement’. Mrs F has neither interest nor ability in the sexual side of marriage, so she is quite content to let Mr F seek his pleasures where he will, provided that he remains her husband, in a strictly social sense.

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 As Collison and Co. scrape away at the wall of lies and deflection which surrounds the truth about Bowen’s murder, they get the distinct feeling that as fast as they chip and chisel, someone else is busy repairing and replacing the brickwork. Of course, the killer is revealed in the end, but not before Fraser-Sampson puts his company through their paces. Collison is educated, urbane and thoroughly professional. Metcalfe is dogged, decent and determined. Willis belongs on the cover of Vogue, but is also blindingly intelligent, and a damn good copper. Collins? Well, he is an exercise in eccentricity. He is possessed of a mind which can think three or four steps ahead of less gifted people, but he does have his little moments. Such as when, in times of great stress, he imagines that he is Lord Peter Wimsey, and that Karen Willis is his Harriet Vane.

 To borrow and adapt from Matthew chapter 7, verse 20, “Therefore by their tea-times ye shall know them..”, we are not surprised that Peter Collins serves up Earl Grey to accompany anchovy toast: we would expect nothing less of him. Without extending the metaphor too much beyond its breaking point, I can say that Fraser-Sampson’s writing is – just like Dr Peter’s four o’clock fare – elegantly presented, fragrant, but with a salty piquancy to add balance. I have become a great admirer of the Hampstead Murders series. They may be making a reverential nod in the direction of Christie, Sayers and Allingham et al, but they are beautifully written, cleverly plotted and, above all, superbly entertaining. After all, isn’t that why we open crime fiction books in the first place?

You can buy A Death In The Night here, but if you fancy a freebie, simply click on the image below, and that will take you to our competition page.

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