Thicker Than Water – Kerry Wilkinson (Pan Macmillan)

A boy disappears from the house where he he has been baby-sitting, leaving the house and the baby unharmed.  His body is found in the bath-tub of a supermarket assistant – and soon afterwards she too is found suffocated in the same place.  There seems to be no connection between the two victims, but then it turns out that the dead woman and the mother of the baby that the boy was minding once worked together – at a seedy night-club owned by a nasty piece of work that the Manchester cops have had their eyes on for years.

Coincidence or wot?  It’s a neat set up, and I liked the first Jessica Daniel novels: sound plots, decent cops, a smart and steady pace, characterful but uncomplicated female lead.  Well-made old-school police procedurals.  A nice change.  But oh dear, oh dear, what a falling off is here.

Wilkinson’s own story is the one we all want to hear: the self-published author who becomes a run-away success.  But he needs to slow down, and boy, does he need a good editor.  He’s published five Jessica Daniel stories since 2011, and more besides, and he’s getting careless.  There’s a lot to be learned from where he goes wrong.

As the nasty-piece-of-work night-club owner gets more of Jessica’s attention, the poor murdered boy and his grieving parents all but disappear from the story, and that’s pretty unforgivable.  No further questions, no updates, no victim support.  Of course the nasty piece of work is more fun to write about.  We all get that.  But it would be so easy to keep the boy’s story in the frame, and plenty of flab that could be trimmed to make room for it.  The unintended consequence of this is that it makes Jessica seem self-absorbed and uncaring.

If I’m not engaged by a book’s characters, I’m more likely to be irritated by niggles I would otherwise take in my stride.  Someone should tell KW that if a character is meant to be taken seriously, she shouldn’t giggle so often, and that if a villain is always referred to by his innocuous given name, he loses a lot of his menace.  Wilkinson’s prose would be crisper if he stripped out some dull and unnecessary detail and there’s a clunky, pointless shift in the time scheme that obliges him to head one chapter ‘Earlier That Day’.  Pur-lease.

We all know that we don’t see our own work very clearly.  That’s why every writer needs a reliable critical buddy (and the invaluable services of The Writers’ Workshop).  But presumably Kerry Wilkinson now has expert advice at his disposal.  However, I think MacMillan are letting him down.  It wouldn’t have taken much work to put right this book’s structural faults and brush up its writing, but the brand has been damaged because someone was over-eager to get out another installment.  An over-worked golden goose can soon become a clapped-out battery bird.

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Hit Me – Lawrence Block

Bit surprised to find that LB has left only one set of dabs on Mean Streets – and wasn’t highly rated. I have a weakness for wisecracks, and though this is only middling Block, it’s a fair introduction to a super-prolific author. If you like the taste, you won’t run out of treats any time soon.
This is the fifth in the Keller series, and it’s a bit of rag-bag: four stories, only loosely linked. Keller is a successful, easy-going hit man, never previously troubled by his conscience. But he’s moved from New York to post-Katriona New Orleans, he has a new identity, a new wife and a new daughter, and he’s beginning to wonder if he’s in the right job.
He doesn’t have to worry about money. His employers – whom we never meet – pay him handsomely and he has plenty to fall back on. The fun of Block is that his morality is as pared down as his dialogue. There’s not much messing around with motives. Keller receives his instructions over the phone from the briskly business-like Dot, who tells him as much as he needs to know about the target and no more – and as much as WE need to know to be reasonably sure that the forthcoming come-uppance is (for most of ‘em) richly deserved. A few deft twists cunningly redistribute the guilt: in the last of the four the target is dead before Keller can get to him – neatly putting the would-be perp back on the right side of the law.
But it’s his hobby that readers need to be warned about. There’s no gore, no violence; the sex is sexy but discreet. Trouble is, Keller is a philatelist. Another of Block’s games, I suspect. Classic crime instructs as well as pleases – and the more esoteric the specialist subject, the classier. But stamp-collecting is surely the limit. It takes a very confident author to risk boring his readers’ socks off, but I think Block is up to it. What he’s doing is turning familiar tropes on their head. Usually the character’s hobby is his/her refuge from the hurly-burly of the day job. Here, murder is all in a day’s work, and it’s in the cut and thrust world of inverted overprints and Postmasters’ Provisionals that we find the full-on bluff and skullduggery.

Clever stuff – or too clever by half?

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CROSS MY HEART – James Patterson

Where Merry Christmas, A-C, was a couple of short stories glued together, which I disappointedly thought would be my last Alex Cross read, I tackled Cross My Heart with trepidation. But it was back to standard! I relaxed – as much as one can relax with a breath-robbing, heart-pounding Patterson read.

And then there was a sucker punch to the solar plexus when half the story ended and the other half did not. If you have schizophrenia, one of you will have a brilliant read and the other will be disappointed by the what-the-hell non-ending.

I won’t say, as some have, that Mr P. needs to sucker us into biting our nails until the obviously attached sequel comes out, for more book sales and to avoid having to look for a new plot. His success must preclude that necessity, but it is certainly a mystery to me. More of his fans bitched about the ending than applauded it, so maybe there is something to be learned. Unless the controversy is part of the marketing plan?

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McNab goes from strength to strength.

He is getting more relaxed with regard to his military and gizmo expertise, whereas I used to feel that he hit his readers with the volumes of his knowledge, rather than opened the door and invited them into his library, which is now more the case.

This is another nail-biting, pulmonary pounder. It flows along in the brassy effing lingo we have come to know and no longer jars. Much.

Nick Stone makes a credible and exciting companion with whom to traverse the tense world he lives in. He is, inevitably, too wired to ever exit as a nine-to-fiver, although he tries hard to join those in the world most of us, and the woman he loves, live in, where most of the excitement is only read about or seen on the box.

In Stone’s fifteenth adventure, his dangerously ill son, the doctor who saves him and the boy’s mother, Anna, the love of his life, come under threat. To protect them, he follows slender threads which lead him back into the life of knife-edge brutal danger that he thought he had left behind. McNab tries to put across that Stone feels guilty that he still relishes the adrenalin high, but it smacks of a little task that needs attending to for explanatory reasons…

From the Triads of Hong Kong and the trade in body parts, Nick Stone is guided to the den of a psychopathic drug lord in Mexico by a shattered ex-CIA agent with powder up his nose.

We will not be seeing the last of Nick Stone as he sinks into wedlock bliss. He will continue to gather no moss.


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Adrian McKinty – In the morning I’ll be gone

Sean Duffy returns in the third outing in the war torn Norn Iron, still whistling Tom Waits songs under his breath at a different beat to everyone else.

Sean Duffy’s got nothing. So when MI5 come knocking, Sean knows exactly what they want, and what he’ll want in return. 

Of course he’s heard about the spectacular escape of IRA man Dermot McCann from Her Majesty’s Maze prison. And he knew their paths would cross. But finding Dermot leads Sean to an old locked-room mystery, and into the kind of danger where you can lose as easily as win.

From old betrayals and ancient history to 1984’s most infamous crime, Sean tries not to fall behind in the race to annihilation. Can he outrun the most skilled terrorist the IRA ever created? And will the past catch him first? 

Duffy’s been chewed up and spat out by the politicians in the RUC hierarchy. Demoted and downtrodden, he continues to weave his merry way, but things start to look worse before they get better. MI5 decide his maverick ways are more suited to their way of thinking and recruit him to look for a Maze escapee before it’s too late.

Sidetracked into trying to solve another crime who’s answer will lead him closer to solving this one, the stakes are high and not just career wise. Duffy stares death in the face as he fights for his future and his life, and to stop the biggest coup the IRA could imagine.

It’s the little details and the dark humour that makes Duffy’s escapades all the more enjoyable for me. McKinty takes him more out of his comfort zone, if there is such a thing, in this offering as there is less of the Coronation Road that is the author’s home turf. His base now feels more Northern Ireland and its troubles as a whole to me and the scope is bigger for it and the feel more all-encompassing and inclusive. The time is captured perfectly in its setting and as in all good novels you are taken into the heart of the era that brought us the miners strike and Thatchers government.

I read a lot about The Troubles and write about it myself. If I could do it a third as well as this I would be a happy man. Outstanding


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AN OFFICER and a SPY – Robert Harris

“Death to the Jew” 

A beautifully written story of detection and cover-ups, based on the true and scandalous events of 1895 in the French Army when Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of spying for the Germans. He is publicly humiliated in a wave of anti-Semitism and sent for a lifetime’s solitary confinement on the infamous Devil’s Island. Army officer, Georges Picquart, is promoted to be the army’s youngest colonel and is made head of the intelligence unit, the Statistical Section, which tracked Dreyfus down.

Picquart is the narrator, a man in inherent integrity, who begins to find that he is isolated from the team under his command and begins to suspect that they have agendas of their own. When he starts to scratch the veneer, he begins to suspect that the case against Dreyfus is less solid than he, and France, was led to believe. Peeling this onion, he finds the whole section and the Army hierarchy have a rotten core who refuse to expose the real spy for fear of admitting their error and prejudice. His attempted exposure is cut short and it seems he is doomed to share Dreyfus’ fate, first transferred to an outpost in the desert of North Africa, then imprisoned.

Robert Harris does a splendid job of whittling down the huge amount of real-life characters into something manageable so that the tale is not swamped with difficult-to-remember personalities. For those who may steer clear of historical novels, do not be afraid of this one. As a suspenseful who-done-it, it fits into any era.

Highly recommended.

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Barcelona Shadows by Marc Pastor

When the blood-drained body of One Eye is found in the filth that is the streets of Barcelona, the locals begin to panic as they believe that darker forces are at work. Rumours of vampires, child snatches and even the Devil himself (Heaven forbid) are said to walk the streets of Barcelona.

The police brush it off as nonsense, but Inspector Moisès Corvo knows that nonsense it is not, and they should be very worried indeed. When more and more children begin to disappear, Corvo believes that the ‘monster’ of which the locals speak could be more chillingly accurate than he first thought. It seems that someone, or something, is snatching away the children of the city and using them for unspeakable acts (and believe me, they’re pretty gruesome). In fact, I had to read the ‘soup’ incident twice because it was so unbelievably horrifying I wasn’t convinced that I’d read it correctly!

With no bodies, and no witnesses, finding the culprit seems like a pretty impossible task, but Corvo and his unorthodox ways find but the tiniest of leads and the chase is on. Throughout Corvo’s investigation he ends up in some pretty grimy places – slums, brothels, casinos – and unbeknown to him he finds that, on more than one occasion, he’s had his murderer within his grasp. He works tirelessly to find his killer but those most powerful who should be aiding his investigation seem to be hindering it instead. The further he digs the worst things seem to get. Corvo finds a network of illegal activities, deception, abuse and peculiar goings on but no one will give him the answers he longs for.

However, Corvo’s exhaustive efforts have forced the ‘monster’ into making mistakes and the countdown to its downfall begins when it snatches a child named Teresina. As the pace quickens, and Corvo gets closer and closer to his fiend, you still have no idea how it will end. Corvo puts his life on the line to discover the truth but will he prevail or will his outlandish disregard for rules and regulations prove a step too far? (Ooo, the tension!)

I’m an avid fan of Ripper Street and this novel very much felt Ripper-streety! The dirt, the grime, the mistrust, the fear, the rough and readiness of the police and the foul living conditions of the towns folk really leapt out of the pages and tickled the very optic nerves of my eyeballs. When I closed my eyes it was a visual feast of squalor and death. The images in which Pastor creates really do bring the story to life (Heaven forbid again!) and at no point did my imagination wander or tire.

At first, I was a little unsure about the narrator. I confused myself as to who they were but as I continued to read I began to understand who this narrator was. For fear of spoiling the read, I’ll say no more on this point, but I will mention that the narration is very cleverly written and adds a sharper edge to the proverbial knife.

This book was right up my street. Wonderfully written with a great story, engaging characters, murder, mystery and muck! I was drawn into the author’s dark and dirty world and thoroughly enjoyed its historical content. I enjoy reading the novels that push the boundaries of traditional crime fiction and this one certainly casts a new light. It’s rare that we, the reader, know who the villain is relatively early on, but this works beautifully and you really do find a new loathing for this apathetic monster.

It has been described as ‘CSI meets Jack the Ripper in early-twentieth century Barcelona’ and ‘This novel is what would happen if the spirits of Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe and Sergio Leone teamed up to produce a blockbusting crime thriller, with a dash of Mediterranean panache… I couldn’t really sum it up any better than these fellows have!

So, if you like your historical crime fiction and you’re looking for something rich with atmosphere, has a sense of place and a villain you could happily boil, skin and mutilate, then this is certainly the one for you.

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Almost Love by Christina James

This is the second book in the DI Yates crime thriller series set in Spalding.

Dame Claudia McRae, a famous archaeologist in the latter stages of her life, has disappeared without a trace (unless you count the blood spattering across the walls, but we’re not sure if that’s really her blood). Other than the new decor there’s not a sausage left to indicate what happened, where she went, and whether or not she tootled out of her own house freely or whether she was dragged out in a carpet. (Personally, I favour the latter. It is a crime novel after all.)

DI Yates and his trusty sidekick get to work poking around in Claudia’s life and try to piece together the last few days/hours of her life in the hope of finding a strong lead. Claudia seems to have lived quite the life and the complexity of her views, archaeological findings and beliefs, seem interesting to the police but very little of these findings can be pieced together for a solid conclusion.

In another part of town Alex Tarrant, secretary for the Spalding Archaeological Society, is struggling with her personal life and decides to have an affair with Edmund Baker, the County Archaeologist (can you see the pattern yet?!). This seemingly bland affair will be Alex’s undoing and soon she will find herself dragged into a terrifying ordeal with little hope of survival.

Tom Tarrant, Alex’s social worker husband, is trying to get to the bottom of some suspicious behaviour from two youths involved in a potential drugs scam. It seems impossible that the missing archaeologist, Alex’s affair and the possibility of a drugs run in a local orphanage could be linked, but that’s where you’d be wrong. I haven’t even mention the McRae stone, a diamond encrusted swastika or the views of a very extremist political party, but I don’t want to ruin it for you!

There are three sides to this story and it’s very interesting to see how the lives of each character unfold to create a delicately woven sheet of deceit, treachery, greed and mistrust. The complexity of the plot will have you guessing till the very end and I’m sure that you’ll still not get it right! I enjoyed the way in which the story came to its peak but then continued for the final conclusion. The author takes her time with the ending and wraps it up nicely without forcing or rushing the outcome. Too many books build up to the final song and then fade into a hum, so it was refreshing to see this novel change things up a bit.

My only niggle with this novel is that it reminded me of an episode of Midsomer Murders: it was a good story, and plot, but it simply went on for far too long. It felt ‘padded out’ in areas and it took me an age to get into. I like my crime books to have the odd murder little and often. I find it hard to keep my focus when everyone is still alive by about half way through, but that’s just my morbid personality! Strangely enough once I reached about two thirds of the way through, the ball began to roll and simply didn’t stop. We had break-ins, threats, suicides, kidnappings, shootings, dead bodies, drugs, rare jewels – you name it, we had it!

So, although I found it difficult at the start I ended up thoroughly enjoying it by the end. The plot is quite complex but it’s all clearly explained at the end when you can put the kettle on, grab a biscuit and enjoy the summary (the bit I like in Midsomer Murders!).

This is a stand alone novel and you don’t have to have read the first one to keep track of what’s going on. I’d quite like to read the first one as I did like the style (albeit it took a while to grab my attention) so I think I’ll be off to the library in the morning.

If you’re after a complex plot with some political and illegal undertones, plenty of suspicious circumstances and some interesting historical content, then give this a try and see what you think.

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Poirot’s Last Gasp

On November 13th 2013 David Suchet brought 25 years of stylish telly to a close. Agatha’s Christie’s Belgian sleuth made his first print appearance in 1920 (The Mysterious Affair at Styles) and his last in 1975. But Curtain was actually written in the early 1940s, then set aside to await the day when Christie’s own life was approaching its end.
ITV set its swansong in some vague approximation of the time of writing (it includes a reference to the recent end of WW2) but stylistically it belonged to that mythic a-political interwar period that we have come to associate with ‘classic’ detective fiction. I was once startled to come across a reference to the Open University (founded 1969) in a Christie novel. Characters called Binkie and Tuppence and a genteel suburban setting had made me think I was in Metroland.

The Crime Writers’ Association has recently declared Christie to be the greatest crime-writer EVER, citing ‘her elegant precision and her perfect sense of place’. But how would we rate her on Mean Streets? A day in bed with a cold gave me an ideal opportunity to remind me of what I’ve been missing.

Murder on the Orient Express (1934) immediately confirmed how much of Christie’s current reputation is owed to film and television. There’s not a trace of the ‘perfect sense of place’ that the CWA claims for her. The train might just as well have been en route to Basingstoke as Istanbul. The snow-drift that halts it could be leaves on the line. There are a few lack-lustre references to food and fittings, but not a soupçon of glamour.

Its structure and language are utterly sparse – almost skeletal. The characters board the train. The corpse is discovered. Poirot interviews the twelve suspects one by one. The evidence is reviewed, the process repeated and finally Poirot reveals his deductions. Christie bothers with neither atmosphere nor suspense.

Her characters are meagre stereotypes that no-one could get away with nowadays, but they do have one merit: you can tell them apart. The Italian is swarthy, the Americans are loud, the English are uptight. Coming to this after The Luminaries which spends 400 pages introducing twelve very indistinct suspects, I was inclined to feel that Christie had a real advantage here. Also on the plus side, her stereotypes don’t correspond to moral judgements – casually applied cultural generalizations are not reliable indicators of guilt. That would of course be counter-productive in a narrative where appearances are designed to be misleading, but it can still make you wince.

One character – a Hungarian Countess according to her passport – is described as exaggerating how ‘foreign’ she is. To be sure, this turns out to be a clue, but it does seem to indicate that Christie expects her reader to be the kind of Brit who thinks that he or she represents the standard from which the rest of the world can only deviate. This makes it all the more intriguing that she should invent someone as ‘foreign’ as Poirot to solve her mysteries. Somehow she is both ultra-British and cosmopolitan at the same time, though she is hardly multi-cultural. Her borders are old Europe and its diaspora. It’s a bit shameful to note that she feels able to assume her readers will understand French.

Poirot isn’t just foreign: he’s another species. Sherlock Holmes is the paradigm of sleuth as super-computer, but at least his deductions are based on evidence. Here, Poirot’s original deduction of the victim’s real identity is particularly hard to swallow – though once we’ve got that down, we’re less inclined to baulk at what follows. Nor is the eventual solution in any way credible: it has about the same emotional satisfaction as solving a cross-word puzzle – pleasant, mildly stimulating but ultimately pointless.

I don’t get it – but are there any fans on Mean Streets prepared to step out of the shadows and tell me where I’ve gone wrong? The ‘official’ website certainly tells me I’m outnumbered, but I‘m prepared to put up a fight.

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It takes a little while to realise that it is Dani Lancing’s ghost who is her father’s constant companion.

Jim Lancing lives a tortured life, never able to accept that he has lost his only daughter, and after twenty years, still does not know who killed her. Her mother, Patty, and Jim are now separated, their pain is too much to share, but Jim still loves her to distraction.

Patty is consumed with determination to find the killer. She hopes modern technology will provide answers. For her own vengeance, if not for the law.

Tom, now a senior policeman, once Dani’s best friend and always wishing he had been more to her than that, is also searching for answers. His suggestion to Patty, that DNA from the old crime scene articles may be the way to go, reignites her crusade. The forensics specialist she chooses to help her has agendas of his own and her request triggers explosive events that will change their lives forever.

All the main characters are keenly sketched, with feeling and depth.

To say more may give away too much. This is a tale of cover-ups, guilt and mixed motives that unravels slowly to a series of unexpected twists.

It is original and beautifully written, but jumps around in time rather disconcertingly. I found myself continually paging back to look at the date so as to get the action into the proper time-frame.

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