Book Review


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The Night Hawks, by Elly Griffiths

This is the latest paperback murder mystery for the forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway character, and it was published when Coronavirus was known about, but the narrative’s start date is September 2019, so it must have been written before Covid was starting to cause real concern. There is a later story, The Locked Room, commencing in February 2020, which should have been published in February this year, but not yet in paperback; from the taster of five short chapters at the end of this book, it is clear that Coronavirus is being taken seriously. At the beginning, Ruth is still single and, after a stint at Cambridge University, back living in her beloved cottage in Norfolk with her now nine-year old daughter Kate, Ruth’s previous lover & putative husband having been gently spurned and returned to his native America. Ruth is now Head of Archaeology, superseding her former boss Phil Trent, and she has engaged a lecturer, David Brown, to work under her, but she is already starting to wonder if he was a good choice, because he seems somewhat arrogant, and she conducts a silent monologue of things she would like to say to him, but prefers to refrain from.

Instead of an ancient body, or the remains of one, the first one to be found this time is very much contemporary, by the eponymous Night Hawks, nocturnal metal detectorists, whom Ruth considers to be a nuisance: “They’re not archaeologists. They’re amateurs who charge around looking for treasure. They’ve no idea how to excavate or how to read the context. They just dive in and dig up whatever looks shiny.” David considers this elitism, however: “Detectorists are valid members of the community and these finds belong to the people.” Ruth’s professional opinion is sought by her daughter’s not-so-secret father, DCI Harry Nelson, but David Brown also invites himself along, much to Ruth’s irritation; his comments about the Night Hawks don’t endear him to her either. It appears that the Night Hawks also found something more attractive, which Nelson categorises as “a lot of old metal”, but Ruth is intrigued, and a superficial excavation reveals a broken spear head, possibly Bronze Age; then part of a skull is found, so David is happy, because he was advocating for a dig for his first year students, but Ruth’s primary concern is that the site should be protected.

At first, the contemporary body, that of a young man, is assumed to be a refugee who drowned in the course of trying to enter the country, but his identification leads the inquiry in an unexpected direction, and before long, there is a second death, so perhaps the first death was murder? Ruth is soon called in to excavate the garden of the isolated Black Dog Farm, where there has been an apparent murder/suicide, and after this, events take a distinctly dangerous turn for her… I have come to really enjoy reading the exploits of these characters, and they always seem somehow more relevant when they are set within the context of current circumstances; also, their lives evolve, they are not preserved in aspic, so they are realistic, whilst still being fictional. The paperback I read was published in 2021 by Quercus Editions Ltd., London, ISBN 978-1-78747-784-1.

Book Review

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A Dedicated Man, by Peter Robinson

This is only the second DCI Banks story, first published way back in 1988, and it is quite a different Chief Inspector Alan Banks we find here from the one with which we [those of us who have watched the excellent TV dramatisations] have become familiar: for a start, he is described as being short, dark and wiry—“in appearance rather like the old Celtic strain of Welshman”, not like the tall, well-built Stephen Tompkinson, who fills the role admirably; plus, he smokes—initially a pipe, then later, when he realises he can’t get on with it, cigarettes—as does everybody else, copiously. Perhaps, by the time he reached the small screen, his character [and peripheral ones] had been subtly tweaked because of health concerns; but it has been some years since I watched early episodes of this canon, so I am prepared to be corrected on that. His familiar colleagues are also conspicuous by their absence: perhaps they were introduced in later stories.

He is also still happily married, living at home with his wife & 2 children: a situation which will deteriorate, sadly, as the stories progress. Banks is still conscious of his outsider status, having only lived in the area [a fictitious area, perhaps in West Yorkshire, possibly based on Helmsley, in North Yorkshire] for 18 months, after relocating from London, but he is also aware that he can use that to his advantage, a notion originally suggested by his superior, the unusually kindly Superintendent Gristhorpe. I was surprised how firmly rooted in the classical & folk traditions his music tastes are, because in later stories he has comfortably embraced a more contemporary catalogue, albeit clinging to what I would, as a “baby boomer”, consider to be the sine qua non era, the 1970s. Murder is always shocking, wherever it occurs, but seemingly more so in small, quiet country areas, where life seems to progress at a comfortable, safe, leisurely pace, so when a retired, but still relatively young University lecturer is found dead by a local farmer, partially buried by a stone field boundary wall, Banks initially struggles to discover a credible motive and, thereby, a likely suspect for the crime.

The victim only had a small social circle, and an evidently loving wife, and no-one was prepared to say anything negative about him: he was the eponymous dedicated man, which makes Banks’s job significantly more difficult, so the enquiries progress slowly; but this makes for a very enjoyable [for me, anyway] pace of narrative, and plenty of opportunities for the reader to speculate on the identity of the killer. Unfortunately, a local teenager takes it upon herself to pursue her own line of enquiry when she feels that Banks hasn’t taken her concerns sufficiently seriously, and suffers drastic consequences as a result. Banks is convinced that the key to solving this murder lies in the past lives of the possible suspects, but as ever, seemingly, people are reluctant to open up about that, for a variety of reasons. Not for the first time in a murder mystery, Sherlock Holmes’s wisdom is invoked to give Banks the final clue to the puzzle, and the killer is identified at an opportune moment although, sadly, not for the previous victims. This is a recent reprint, for which I am grateful, because I always enjoy the opportunity to broaden my knowledge of characters with whom I have become familiar, to learn how their story arcs develop. The paperback I read was published in 2018 [1988], by Pan Books, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, ISBN 978-1-5098-5704-3.

Book Review

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The Night Gate, by Peter May

Once again, Peter May has produced a layered and tense thriller which delivers in spades. The book’s title could be considered a distraction, given that it takes a while for its significance to be realised, but this is a very minor concern: overall, the narrative is well constructed, and it is bang up to date, embracing, rather than avoiding or ignoring the inexorable tide of infectious illness which has swept the world over two years, and is only now showing signs of abating. The protagonist, Enzo Macleod, is slightly unusual, in that he is a Scot by birth, with an Italian given name, but living & working in Cahors, south west France for enough years to allow him to become established, but without necessarily considering himself entrenched, in his chosen profession, forensic criminal investigation. His past personal life is somewhat complicated, and doesn’t really require exposition here, but suffice to say that he is now happily married to the significantly younger Dominique, who worked as an investigating officer in the Gendarmerie, and he has, in addition to a Scottish adult daughter, Kirsty, an adolescent son, Laurent, and another adult daughter, Sophie, who is currently in the late stages of pregnancy, hoping for a safe delivery after two previous miscarriages.

While on tenterhooks about the forthcoming birth, Enzo is invited, via an erstwhile almost-lover, a Gendarme named Hélène, by an old acquaintance, a forensic archaeologist named Professor Magali Blanc, to assist in investigating a very ‘cold’ case: a recently unearthed unsolved murder in a village, Carennac, situated on a bend of the Dordogne river, roughly an hour north of his home in the Lot valley. Enzo is initially reluctant to get back ‘in harness’, given that he is “retired from all that these days…Five years since I packed in my position at Paul Sabatier.” His former position is unspecified, but Paul Sabatier is a prestigious university in Toulouse, and he is revered as having “forensic talents”, so it is likely that he would have specialised, and probably lectured in one of the Life Sciences. When he learns that the seventy-five years old, or possibly more, remains are those of “a ranking officer of the Luftwaffe with a bullet hole in his skull, shallow-buried in a tiny medieval village…[which] wouldn’t exactly fit a conventional wartime scenario”, he is sufficiently intrigued to make the trip. When he & Dominique get there, they are informed by the local Gendarmerie Capitaine Arnaud, who happens to be a fan of Enzo’s skill, that the reason he is there is because there was a murder in the vicinity the previous day and, given his reverence for Enzo, persuades him to also take a look at this crime while it is still fresh.

There is a suspect for the new murder, but he has absconded, and thereafter, when Enzo starts investigating, the narrative broadens out to encompass events which took place in the early years of world war two, contemporary participants in these events, and how it becomes clear that these two murders are inextricably connected. The narrative alternates between the present, and wartime France, with the earlier events partly narrated by a current resident of the house where the latest murder occurred, and partly in third-person exposition; this could be a recipe for confusion, but May holds these temporally distanced threads together well. The main premise of the story is a proposition which is plausible, given the circumstances of the war in question, but which is impossible to prove, given its audacious nature; more cannot be revealed here! There is also added jeopardy as the hunt for the perpetrator intensifies, because a new lockdown was imposed in France at the end of October 2020, so Enzo only had a limited time in which to resolve the case, before his freedom of movement was curtailed. The description of the landscape in which the case unfolds is quite enticing, and I found it helpful to have a good map of the country to follow the characters’ movements. I can happily recommend this book, and the paperback I read was published in 2021 by riverrun, an imprint of Quercus Editions Ltd., London, ISBN 978-1-78429-508-0.

Book Review


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Left You Dead, by Peter James

Detective Superintendent Roy Grace’s latest case is not an easy one; although it probably wouldn’t make for a particularly engaging story if it was, would it? There are three main reasons for this: first of all, a distressed husband’s missing person case is very quickly converted to a murder inquiry, but without the aid of a body; secondly, he is being oh-so-politely hounded by his superior, ACC Cassian Pewe; and thirdly, before he can really get to grips with the case, he is beset by a family tragedy. The first two can be deconstructed, but to do this with the third would unhelpfully forewarn the reader, so I will eschew that. The disappearance of the wife appears to be straightforward, albeit mysterious, the way it is presented at the commencement of the narrative, but the husband is not the most attractive of human beings, in a rounded sense, and it is this which sets the ‘Spidey-senses’ of Grace and his colleague, DI Glenn Branson, tingling in very short order [notwithstanding the proclivity of the police, albeit possibly stereotypical, to suspect the messenger in preference to investigating the message], and before long, they have accumulated enough circumstantial evidence to arrest the man.

Further evidence is uncovered by Grace & his sizeable team, which includes a surveillance group, but the use of this facility is jeopardised, and it is even temporarily removed by Pewe, which Grace inevitably interprets as malicious, despite the operational reasons being justifiable, however debatable. What Pewe doesn’t know, at the outset, is that Grace has a source of ostensibly credible & reliable evidence against him, which could end his career, although Grace is painfully aware that this venture could also go badly wrong, because the source is a discredited police officer, so he has to bide his time and continue to be acquiescent with Pewe, and avoid being too obviously insubordinate. On the plus side for Grace, he has a very happy marriage with Cleo, who is a medical examiner [pathologist] and currently pregnant, but they also have a toddler, Noah, and these provide him with welcome solace from his tribulations; although the family tragedy inevitably involves Cleo, as Grace’s wife. Other dimensions to the ‘missing body’ murder inquiry are fed into the narrative as it progresses, but these cannot be revealed here! Suffice to say that Grace & his team have to revise their assessment of the situation [and perhaps, in the process, examine their preconceptions?] several times before a dénouement is reached.

This is a substantial hardback of 482 pages, but it does mean that the pacing can be relatively slow, so the development of the narrative can be savoured & enjoyed, like a gourmet meal. A second TV dramatisation of a Roy Grace book has now been produced, following on from the first story, Dead Simple, reviewed here, and very sensibly, it is the second book chronologically, Looking Good Dead, again starring the ever-capable John Simm as Roy Grace; although the screenwriting duty was assigned to Russell Lewis in both cases—having enjoyed the first, I look forward to watching the second, as soon as it becomes available on one of the ITV channels. The hardback I read was published in 2021 by Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, ISBN 978-1-5290-0424-3.

Book Review

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The Lonely Hour, by Christopher Fowler

This book, the [somewhat unbelievably] eighteenth in the series featuring this detective pairing [although two of those are short stories], would appear, if the dénouement is anything to go by, to be pivotal; although, having not read any of the previous books, it is altogether possible that this outcome might be a regular occurrence, which is actually quite possible, given the nature of the setup. The two principal characters, British police detectives by the name of Arthur Bryant & John May—Bryant and May: more than a match for any other police duo, har har!—work for a fictitious department of the Metropolitan Police, called the Peculiar Crimes Unit which, to quote the book, is “A specialized [sic] London police division with a remit to prevent or cause to cease any acts of public affright or violent disorder committed in the municipal or communal areas of the city.”  It should be said, by way of context, that this description comes courtesy of the Unit Chief, Raymond Land [only semi-affectionately referred to as “Raymondo”, by Bryant], who is a rather pompous & ineffectual individual.

Despite these characters not existing in a fantasy world, there is something a bit Pratchett-like in the humour, which is definitely a plus, for me, and Philip Pullman is also given a nod; not that it is largely whimsical, because it does deal with the mundane problems of ‘real’ life. There is also an interesting mix of cultural references, including bang up to date with Uber, but also more whiskery ones, including “Ruth Ellis curls”, and the characters Julian & Sandy from Round the Horne. I was gratified that Fowler is careful with his writing, using the correct plural form of cul de sac [culs de sac, not cul de sacs, as I often see], and the feminine filipina, when referring to a Philippine woman; I did wonder, however, if he was trying just a tad too hard to impress us with his articulacy, albeit via the voice of Bryant, who is old enough to have retired years ago, but persists in working to keep his mind occupied; I used to enjoy the increase your wordpower [correct me if I’m wrong] section in Reader’s Digest, but there are too many arcane words in the narrative to list here, and it does become a wee bit tiresome encountering yet another word which one is never likely to need in normal situations [and don’t forget: “Nobody loves a smartarse!”].

The PCU has a pioneering approach: its founding principle is “to seek new ways of dealing with criminality and to ensure that these experimental methods found [sic] purchase within the legal system, creating precedence.” Given “the unit’s unprofessional approach to policing”, and the fact that the PCU only handles homicides, this unfortunately serves to infuriate every one of the twenty-four murder investigation teams within the Met. This story isn’t a whodunnit, because we encounter the perpetrator, albeit initially anonymous, right at the outset, although his backstory slowly emerges, so it is a whydunnit, and the tension builds through the narrative as the PCU team struggles to discover who is murdering a succession of apparently unconnected individuals, and why; although there are two elements which provide a link, albeit tenuous: the murder weapon, and the time of despatch—04:00, referred to eponymously as the lonely hour. Unsurprisingly, there are disruptive dynamics within the department, which hinder its operation somewhat, plus the ever-present threat to the department’s very existence, from the more dogmatic & less flexible overseers in the Met.

I appreciate that I have come to this series at a very late stage, by accident rather than design, so as stated, I don’t know how the pairing of the two detectives originated, and how the PCU was set up, but I like to think that this won’t be any sort of impediment to my enjoyment of any previous stories, should I find any, which I would be more than happy to, having enjoyed this one. Standard police procedurals can be easy to read, even undemanding, to some extent, but I think there is something attractive about the inclusion of slightly quirky characters, as some of these are; if only as an opportune avenue for offbeat humour. The paperback I read was published in 2020 by Bantam; first published in 2019 by Doubleday, an imprint of Transworld Publishers, London, ISBN 978-0-8575-0408-1. Happy New Year!