Category Archives: British Crime Fiction

Review: Blue Monday by Nicci French

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BlueMondayBlue Monday by Nicci French (Pamela Dorman Books, 2012), Frieda Klein series

Blurb: Frieda Klein is a solitary, incisive psychotherapist who spends her sleepless nights walking along the ancient rivers that have been forced underground in modern London. She believes that the world is a messy, uncontrollable place, but what we can control is what is inside our heads. This attitude is reflected in her own life, which is an austere one of refuge, personal integrity, and order.

The abduction of five-year-old Matthew Farraday provokes a national outcry and a desperate police hunt. And when his face is splashed over the newspapers, Frieda cannot ignore the coincidence: one of her patients has been having dreams in which he has a hunger for a child. A red-haired child he can describe in perfect detail, a child the spitting image of Matthew. She finds herself in the center of the investigation, serving as the reluctant sidekick of the chief inspector.

 

Frieda Klein is an interesting character: the psychotherapist who is reluctantly drawn into a murder investigation via a new patient. She’s at the center of a bizarre cast of characters: the police officer she approaches with her suspicions about her patient’s role in the kidnapping; the world-weary colleague who’s turned to alcohol as a means of escaping the conclusions he’s drawn after years of practicing psychotherapy; the self-absorbed sister with the precocious daughter; the wacky Ukrainian émigré who announces his presence by literally falling at her feet. These characters and their relationships with each other and with Frieda are where the book shines, and if I keep reading this series it’s to see how this develops. I’m particularly intrigued by Josef, the Ukrainian, who manages to effortlessly work his way into almost every aspect of Frieda’s life.

The central mystery under investigation is the abduction of a five-year-old boy, which may or may not be connected to the similar abduction of a young girl some twenty years back. (I got the impression that there was supposed to be an analogy here with the hidden rivers of Frieda’s nighttime meanderings, but if so, it was a bit too oblique, and left me with the feeling of a lost opportunity more than an added layer.) The book starts slowly and jumps around a bit, but about halfway through the pace picks up and the various story elements start to come together. Unfortunately for me, I figured out fairly early on where everything was headed and so I never really felt a sense of suspense or urgency, and I genuinely could not tell if this was down to the storytelling or down to me just being good at guessing these things.

I wanted to like this book, and I did, but not nearly as much as I’d hoped. It’s a psychological thriller that doesn’t quite manage to build up and sustain enough tension to make up for the disjointed storytelling. Still, the characterization was good enough to make me want to check out the next book in the series.

 

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Review: Cross and Burn by Val McDermid

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Cross and BurnCross and Burn by Val McDermid (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013): Tony Hill & Carol Jordan series

 

Tony Hill and Carol Jordan finally defeated their nemesis, Jacko Vance, but not before they paid a staggering price: the murder of Carol’s brother and his partner. Cross and Burn begins with an ending: Carol’s elite MIT squad has been disbanded, its members reassigned. Carol herself has quit the force and has seemingly vanished. Tony is back to clinical practice. Paula McIntyre is now the second to DCI Alex Fielding (yes, from the TV incarnation of Wire in the Blood), and on her very first day she finds herself pulled in two directions: officially she’s investigating a series of murders, and unofficially she’s trying to locate her partner’s colleague, who has gone missing and whose teenage son insists she’s met with foul play.

This is a novel about relationships. Carol’s absence has left a gaping hole in Tony’s and Paula’s lives, both personally and professionally. Tony struggles to adjust to life without Carol and to his overwhelming guilt over her brother’s murder, while trying to maintain his friendship with her former colleagues. But it is Paula who forms the heart of this novel as she attempts to balance her new working relationships with her reliance on Tony Hill and Stacey Chen, as well as her relationships at home. Paula has always been a talented investigator, but as she investigates the murders of several women—who, disturbingly, resemble Carol Jordan—Paula realizes just how much of an influence Carol has been on her and just how big a loss Carol’s resignation really is.

As always, McDermid is able to create situations that are emotionally charged without begin melodramatic. Through skilled plotting and pacing, she keeps Tony and Carol apart for more than two-thirds of the book before they are both inexorably drawn into Paula’s investigation, and while solving the murders is important, it’s the impact it has on Tony and Carol that makes for a riveting story.

 

Cross and Burn is the eight novel to feature Tony Hill and Carol Jordan, and I can only hope there are many more to come.

This book was furnished by the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 5 stars

Review: The Last Winter of Dani Lancing by P.D. Viner

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LastWinterofDaniLancingThe Last Winter of Dani Lancing by P. D. Viner (Crown Publishers, 2013)

 

Twenty years have passed since Danielle Lancing was kidnapped and murdered. Twenty years in which the case has gone cold, in which her family has been torn apart, her friends’ lives forever changed.

Dani’s father Jim speaks to her on a daily basis. She is there with him, reassuring him, helping him cope with each new day. Dani’s mother is a woman on a mission. Having given up hope of ever finding justice for her daughter, she has learned that Dani’s case is going to be re-opened due to advances in forensic science. But that means more waiting, and waiting is not something Patty Lancing is willing to do. It’s slight comfort that DS Tom Bevans, who has loved Dani his entire life, is heading the investigation. He’s devoted his career to solving this kind of case: the murders of young women. How far is he willing to go to solve Dani’s murder?

We gradually learn about Dani from her ghostly interactions with her father and her observations of the other people she still visits, through their idealized—and not so idealized—memories of her, and through a series of flashbacks that gradually illuminate the real Danielle, who is far more complex than we are first led to believe.

Telling a story in reverse chronology can be a very effective strategy. There are two primary pitfalls to avoid: First is when the structure becomes the story, when a mundane plot is told in reverse, thereby making it a little more interesting than it might otherwise be. The other is when the device is used to withhold information that is known to the characters from the reader, to create a mystery where one doesn’t necessarily exist. This is the strategy that is employed by Viner. While it’s generally successful, it’s also frustrating; while some characters’ reasons for their actions rang true, others didn’t, and there are perhaps a few too many twists and turns that make the plot more complicated than it needed to be.

The writing is somewhat uneven. Viner is best when he is focusing on his characters, whose motivations and emotions come across as genuine and imbue them with depth and purpose. It’s when Viner is trying to provide a sense of narrative tone that he stumbles; in particular, there is a nod to Peter Pan that seemed out of place. The epilogue is likewise puzzling—is it intended to be a resolution or a continuation of the story? Still, The Last Winter of Dani Lancing is a solid thriller, and I look forward to Viner’s next book.

This ARC was furnished by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 4 stars

Review: The Lewis Man by Peter May

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42985_LewisMan_HB:564x240The Lewis Man by Peter May (Quercus, 2012), Lewis Trilogy #2

 

Blurb: The male Caucasian corpse – marked by several horrific stab wounds – is initially believed by its finders to be over two thousand years old. Until they spot the Elvis tattoo on his right arm. The body, it transpires, is not evidence of an ancient ritual killing, but of a murder committed during the latter half of the twentieth century. Meanwhile, Fin Macleod has returned to the island of his birth. Having left his wife, his life in Edinburgh, and his career in the police force, the former detective inspector is intent on repairing past relationships and restoring his parents’ derelict croft. But when DNA tests flag a familial match between the bog body and the father of Fin’s childhood sweetheart, Marsaili Macdonald, Fin finds his homecoming more turbulent than expected. Tormod Macdonald, now an elderly man in the grip of dementia, had always claimed to be an only child without close family.

 

I’ve always wanted to visit the Outer Hebrides. I’m not sure why–the windswept isolation sounds beautiful to me, in a rugged hardscrabble way, and I’d like to see it for myself. Lewis makes a wonderful backdrop for these novels.

As with The Black House, Peter May has written a taut, compelling novel with wonderful characters. Fin Macleod has returned to Lewis, perhaps permanently, and is discovering that the “simple” life he left behind was anything but—in fact it’s a tangled web of conversations that never took place—and trying to find his way in the new life he’s establishing for himself. Now that Fin is finally coming to terms with the death of his son, he tries to establish a relationship with Marsaili, his teenage love, and her son, who is starting his own family. However, Fin is soon drawn into a mystery when a body is found in a bog—and judging from the Elvis tattoo and the stab wounds, the man was murdered. DNA soon links the body to Marsaili’s father, who has dementia.

The story of Tormod Macdonald is handled beautifully, with sensitivity and pathos. The key to solving the mystery of the bog body is locked up in his memories, which he can relive but cannot articulate. His story, revealed a piece at a time, is heartbreaking, all the more so because it’s based on the true stories of children like him.

It’s interesting to me that the titles for both The Black House and The Lewis Man come from the cases under investigation, because the cases are not really the focus of either book. The trilogy’s focus on character relationships and interactions, and broader social issues, is what makes it so compelling.

 

My rating: 5 stars

Review: The Blackhouse by Peter May

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BlackhouseThe Blackhouse by Peter May (Quercus, 2011)

Blurb: A brutal killing takes place on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland: a land of harsh beauty and inhabitants of deep-rooted faith.

A MURDER. Detective Inspector Fin Macleod is sent from Edinburgh to investigate. For Lewis-born Macleod, the case represents a journey both home and into his past.

A SECRET. Something lurks within the close-knit island community. Something sinister.

A TRAP. As Fin investigates, old skeletons begin to surface, and soon he, the hunter, becomes the hunted.

 

I saw this book and its sequels on a display table in Waterstones and couldn’t pass it up. The cover photo does an excellent job of setting up the book, which is takes place in the bleak, remote Outer Hebrides (off the northwestern coast of Scotland).

Fin Macleod has recently lost his son, and the island functions as the perfect backdrop to Macleod’s grief.  Macleod is sent to Lewis to investigate a murder that bears a striking resemblance to a recent murder in Edinburgh, where he now lives. He finds both solace and further anger in his memories of growing up in this environment—and many of them center on the island’s rite of passage, the guga harvest. Every year, twelve men from Lewis spend a week on the sheer cliffs of Sula Sgeir, hunting gannet chicks. Macleod participated only once, and his memories are hazy—but the disaster that occurred during that year’s hunt has kept him away from Lewis for almost 20 years. Adding to the story’s complexity is the disintegration of Macleod’s marriage and his reunion with old friends—including his first love.

This is a well-written, compelling mystery, and I’m happy that I bought it. It’s the first in a trilogy, and I’ve already bought the other two books.

 

My rating: 5 stars

Two for Sorrow by Nicola Upson

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TwoforSorrowTwo for Sorrow by Nicola Upson (Harper Perennial, 2011)

Blurb: They were the most horrific crimes of a new century: the murders of newborn innocents for which two British women were hanged at Holloway Prison in1903. Decades later, mystery writer Josephine Tey has decided to write a novel based on Amelia Sach and Annie Walters, the notorious “Finchley baby farmers,” unaware that her research will entangle her in the desperate hunt for a modern-day killer.

A young seamstress–an ex-convict determined to reform–has been found brutally slain in the studio of Tey’s friends, the Motley sisters, amid preparations for a star-studded charity gala. Despite initial appearances, Inspector Archie Penrose is not convinced this murder is the result of a long-standing domestic feud–and a horrific accident involving a second young woman soon after supports his convictions. Now he and his friend Josephine must unmask a sadistic killer before more blood flows–as the repercussions of unthinkable crimes of the past reach out to destroy those left behind long after justice has been served.

This is a good book. It’s well written, thoroughly researched, with an intriguing premise and a bunch of twists and turns that come together nicely. I was a bit skeptical of reading a book that is in essence RPF–a fictional account of the life of author Josephine Tey–but it’s very well done and I found that I was immersed in the world that had been created around her. I’m going to try to find other books by Nicola Upton.

I’m dismayed, but not altogether surprised, that this book’s relatively low ratings both here and on Amazon seem to be due entirely to the lesbian subplot. For whatever reason, no matter how organic it is to the story, a “mainstream” book with a lesbian subplot is likely to get a lot of bad reviews from people who are upset that “that sort of thing” is being “forced” into the story–when chances are they would have no objection whatsoever to a similar heterosexual romantic subplot. This is definitely a book worth reading if you like historical mysteries.

My rating: 4 Stars