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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 WALLS … Between the covers

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Lone mother. Single parent. Solo carer. Whatever the politically correct term currently favoured by The Taking-Offence Police, Kristy Tucker is it. Not only is she bringing up her teenage son Ryan, she is caring for her debilitated father. ‘Pops’ is paying the price for a lifetime of heavy smoking, and two things keep him alive. One is physical – the cannula connecting him to his oxygen tank – and the other is psychological – the faint hope that he can still be a father to his daughter and someone his grandson can look up to.

The WallsKristy puts food on the table and tries to make sure that Ryan isn’t disadvantaged. She has a job, and it is one that demands every ounce of her compassion and every droplet of her sang froid. Her official title? Public Information Officer for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. If that sounds like some bureaucratic walk-in-the-park, think again. Acting as mediator between inmates, the press and the prison system is one thing, but remember that The Lone Star State is one of the thirty one American states which retains the death penalty. Consequently, Kristy not only has to manage the fraught liaison between prisoners on death row and the media, but she is also required to be an official witness at executions.

Despite the stresses and strains of her professional and family life, Kristy is still young enough to hanker after a personal life, and when Ryan introduces his martial arts teacher, Lance Dobson, she is taken aback by his kindness and his humility. It doesn’t hurt that he is ruggedly handsome and totally charming. Dobson becomes more and more a part of the Tucker household and, despite Dobson’s “aw, shucks..” modesty, Kristy finds herself falling in love with him. She is dazzled by the man, and cannot believe her luck when her affection is returned, with interest, and he asks her to marry him.

Back at the prison, Kristy Tucker has become involved with a condemned prisoner, Clifton Harris. He has been sentenced to death for starting a fire which killed his two children. There have been frequent appeals and stays of execution, but Harris’s last ride on the gurney of death is imminent. Kristy becomes convinced that Harris is innocent, but her profession inhibits her from offering anything but sympathy and a kindly voice.

All too soon, Kristy becomes Mrs Dobson, and both Ryan and Pops think all their Christmases have come at once. For Ryan, Lance Dobson becomes the father he never had, and Pops takes on a new lease of life, knowing that at long last there is an alpha male in the house to take on the duty of care which his illness has prevented him from fulfilling. Gold at the end of the rainbow? Not quite. Within a matter of weeks a fatal chasm begins to open up between Dobson’s public persona and the man he has become when alone with Kristy. He is insanely jealous, sexually demanding, domineering – and brutal with his fists. Despite Ryan and Pops still worshipping the ground that Lance Dobson walks on, Kristy has finally had enough. Using her unique insight into the mistakes made both by criminals and police, she plans a route which will take her out of her misery.

hollieovertonIt will come as no surprise to learn that Hollie Overton (right) is an experienced writer for TV. In The Walls every set-piece, every scene is intensely visual and immediate. With consummate cleverness she sets up two story lines which at first run parallel, but then converge. Two men. One is definitely guilty. One possibly innocent. Both are condemned to death. One by the State of Texas. The other by his battered wife.

The Walls is a sheer joy to read. The pace of the narrative is breathtaking, the characters are beautifully drawn and utterly convincing. Of course Hollie Overton takes sides, and she expects us to do the same, but we can still hold our breath and chew our nails until the final pages. This is domestic drama at its very best. The Walls is out on 10th August in the UK, published by Century, and is available here.

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THE SECRETS ON CHICORY LANE …Between the covers

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Shelby Truman is a highly successful romantic novelist tapping out stories involving her heroine Patricia Harlow. After forty two novels, the public shows no sign of losing its appetite for the sultry Patricia and her ability to choose precisely the wrong kind of man for her peace of mind and blood pressure. It’s a grey Chicago morning, and Truman is taking a deep breath and trying type something – anything – which will trigger the latest episode of inflamed passions and yearning bodies, when she receives a piece of registered mail which her assistant, Billy, has just signed for. She is used to convincing her readers that Patricia’s heart has ‘missed a beat’, but now fiction becomes reality.

“The return address at the top of the envelope indicates that the sender is Robert Crane Esq. of Limite, Texas. I know the name. Eddie’s attorney. A twinge of anxiety starts deep in my chest. I’d been trying not to think about Eddie, but that’s impossible this week.

The thing is, I’ve always thought about Eddie. We go way, way back, to when we were children living in Limite.”

Chicory LaneEddie is Eddie Newcott, the boy who used to live across the street in Chicory Lane, Limite. The boy who was just a bit different from all the other kids at school. The kid whose dad was a rough and abusive oilfield mechanic. The kid whose mom turned to the bottle to escape her violent husband and the beatings he handed out to their only child. But that was then. Now sees Eddie fallen on hard times. Times so hard that he achieved brief notoriety in the tabloid press, and has now been sentenced to death by lethal injection for murdering his pregnant girlfriend, slashing her open, dragging the foetus out and then arranging the two corpses on his front lawn, posed in an obscene mockery of a Nativity tableau. And it was Christmas Eve.

“EVIL EDDIE…” …”SATANIST IN GRUESOME RITUAL..” … ‘SUSPECT CLAIMS TO BE THE DEVIL …”

With these headlines dancing before her eyes, Truman reads that all efforts to appeal for clemency on the grounds of insanity have failed, and that Eddie Newcott will die in four days time. As one of his last requests, the condemned man has asked for a visit from Shelby Truman.

What follows is a wonderfully written and heartbreaking account of the bond between Eddie and Shelby. It is as good a coming-of-age novel as I have read for many a year, but Benson’s skill as a storyteller doesn’t stop there. He delivers the poignancy and unbearable sensitivity of first love and sexual awakening. His account of how children escape from the shackles slapped on by their parents is masterly. Sometimes these shackles are forged from too much love, while with other children, the shackles are tempered in the fires of cruelty and hatred. There is also a very clever murder mystery, which isn’t resolved until the last few pages, and then the resolution brings only heartbreak.

I am never entirely sure what a ‘literary novel’ is, but if it consists of elegant writing, a fine ear for dialogue and a gimlet eye for the painful inconsistencies of human behaviour, then The Secrets On Chicory Lane ticks that box too.

RaymondBensonLike Shelby Truman, Raymond Benson (right) is a highly successful writer. He has written thrillers under his own name, most notably his Black Stiletto Saga, and has also written novels based on video games. He has taken up the baton from authors who are no longer with us, like Tom Clancy, and has written several James Bond stories which have either been based on established screenplays – like Die Another Day – or standalone original stories such as The Man With The Red Tattoo.

The Secrets On Chicory Lane is published by Skyhorse Publishing, and is available for pre-order.

THE SHIMMERING ROAD … Between the covers

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Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Cates has plenty of experience in holding the shitty end of life’s stick. Her childhood was scarred with rejection and loss and , talking of loss, the sudden death of her son the previous summer has proved to her that while fate can take, it can also take some more. But now, circumstances have partnered her in a bewildering kind of dance; she has given up her job as a journalist on a sleek New York magazine; she has a new partner, a rough and tumble Mr Nice Guy from Sidalie, Texas, who, in addition to running a very successful landscaping firm, is ridiculously rich. Charlie is also 32 weeks pregnant, albeit accidentally, with a baby daughter for her and Noah Palmer.

shimmeringThen, as Noah is trying to tempt Charlie into marrying him, and agree to their moving into a luxurious new home, comes the ‘phone call which triggers the enthralling next chapter in Charlie’s life. She takes a call from a distant aunt, and the news is that Charlie’s estranged mother Donna, and her half sister Jasmine, have been found shot dead in Jasmine’s Tucson apartment. There is another complication. Jasmine’s daughter Micky was also in the apartment but in another room. She is shaken, but very much alive, and has been taken into protective care.

So, Charlie and Noah head off to Arizona to try to make sense of the shattered family that Charlie hardly knew she still had. They meet, in no particular order, the strangely savant Micky, Donna’s lesbian lover, Jasmine’s cop boyfriend, and an apparently saintly woman who runs a refuge for battered women. What follows is a brilliantly plotted journey into the murky world of USA-Mexican social politics and the disturbing lengths which people will go to in order to have children, when nature has ordained that it simply ain’t gonna happen.

For the book to burn on full heat, you have to accept that Charlie Cates is, to an extent, governed by what could be dreams, or maybe fleeting out-of-body experiences. Charlie confides:

“My dreams are not like other people’s. They show me things.”

She has a terrifying recurring nightmare which involves her – and her unborn daughter – being shot dead while taking a shower. At other times she meets, on this spectral level, other key characters in the story. Some of them are alive, but some of them are dead. Personally, I have no problem with this. Two of my favourite writers, John Connolly with his doom laden PI Charlie Parker, and Phil Rickman with his delightful-but-slightly-scary Merrily Watkins, both take thrilling liberties with our working hypothesis that The Dead are dead and The Living are living.

Hester Young writes like an angel, even if that celestial being has a distinctly dark tinge to its wings. There are sharp observations on some of the absurdities of the American way of life. This is a Texan realtor (estate agent to us Brits):

“Brandi Babcock may possess the name of a porn star, but she has the body of a butternut squash, a solid top that flares out into an epically large backside.”

tjb3vcybThe greatest strength of the book is the magical spell Hester Young (right) casts as she links the reader to Charlie Cates. As a cynical, autumnal English male, with a downbeat view of life and the tricks it can play, I am not the obvious candidate to be entranced by a slightly manic, conflicted and complex American female journalist, but by the time the novel reached its gripping conclusion in the Arizona desert, I was ready to crawl over broken glass to make sure that Charlie survived with body and soul intact. Hester Young slaps a winning hand down on the green baize table – dry humour, suspense, atmosphere, superb characterisation – and deservedly rakes in all the chips.

The Shimmering Road is out now in Kindle and paperback format.

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