Book Review

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The Stone Circle, by Elly Griffiths

This is the eleventh book in the Ruth Galloway series; a series which was originally intended to encompass ten books so, taking a charitable approach, one has to assume that the series has been so successful that an extension was appropriate; I have no reason to decry this decision because, although I haven’t read the whole series [depending entirely upon those which are available from my local library], I have thoroughly enjoyed the ones I have read hitherto, and have come to look forward to reading more exploits of the regular characters who are mainly (although not always entirely) likeable. Elly Griffiths is interesting to me as an author, because she reverses the normal authorial convention: this is actually a nom de plume, presumably chosen [although see below] to appear to be quite British [or Welsh, to be specific] and consequently instantly acceptable to the majority of British readers, whereas her birth name is Domenica de Rosa [Italian for Sunday of the rose] which, although born in this country, she acquired from her Italian father. After writing four novels featuring Italy [write about what you know!] a holiday in Norfolk with her archaeologist husband inspired her to write the first of the Ruth Galloway series; her agent, who saw the potential in it but recognised that it was a crime novel, in contrast to the earlier ones, recommended that she needed a crime name appropriate to the genre, and hence she became Elly Griffiths!

This story does have certain overlaps with previous stories, but that isn’t to imply that it is merely a cynical rehash: quite the opposite, it demonstrates continuity and in some ways, there are advantages, because it can be seen how characters respond to new situations with the benefit of their experience from these earlier situations; and Ruth’s work does have a certain repetitive quality about it. Archaeology expert Ruth Galloway is investigating a burial pit in a henge on the Norfolk coast, close to another one she worked on previously, during which she came into contact with two of the series’s main characters: an endearing (but occasionally also irritating, in equal measure) man who goes by the name of Cathbad, although his birth name is Michael Malone, and he regards himself as a druid, but latterly he seems to have embraced a somewhat more conventional lifestyle with his current partner, a police Detective Sergeant called Judy Johnson; and the father of Ruth’s daughter, Kate, Harry Nelson, a Detective Chief Inspector and Judy’s boss. He is married with two adult daughters, and feels somewhat trapped in this marriage, notwithstanding that he also loves his wife, who is pregnant again at the beginning of the story, & daughters, and his work (somewhat conveniently, it has to be said) regularly brings him into contact with Ruth; he does willingly, and with no complaint from Ruth, visit Kate (whom he insists on calling Katie, much to Ruth’s annoyance), so this doesn’t greatly help Ruth romantically, although she does also enjoy her own space, and there is currently another male suitor in the equation, a visiting Historical Consultant from America, who has been brought in to work as a presenter on a television documentary which also features Ruth.

In the course of Ruth’s digging, the skeleton of a child is found nearby, and there is sufficient evidence that this skeleton is relatively recent, compared to the first remains found by Ruth, so Nelson’s team becomes involved. There is a real concern that the skeleton could be that of a 12-year old young girl, Margaret Lacey, who went missing thirty years ago, so it is important for the family that this can be confirmed, which it is, to give them closure, but also, ideally, to identify the perpetrator. There was a suspect at the time, a young man of obviously limited intellectual capabilities who lived with his mother, but whose alibi, from his mother, was unassailable, so he remained at liberty, albeit grudgingly by the contemporary investigating officers. All of the victim’s family are reinvestigated, and in the course of the story, the baby daughter (Ava) of one of the dead girl’s relatives, Star (Stella by birth) is abducted, almost immediately after another baby is abducted locally, but returned safely within a matter of days; the mother & missing baby are known to Nelson’s wife, Michelle, who is attending the same mother & baby classes, and she dismisses the notion that Star might have engineered this as a way of seeking attention. This is also a very emotive situation for Judy Johnson, whose own son, Michael, was abducted in a previous story (hence the aforementioned overlap), and that was the catalyst for Judy to acknowledge that she preferred Cathbad, Michael’s father, to her erstwhile husband, Darren.

To reveal any more of the plot would be to spoil it, but the original, somewhat unexpected, perpetrator is identified, although not before one of the characters is murdered, and this dénouement is not revealed until right at the end of the story. Otherwise, there is ample scope for continuance of the main characters’ lives, so as I have already said, I am very willing to read a further instalment, plus any previous, necessarily out-of-sequence unread ones I can obtain, and I can thoroughly recommend this series of stories. There are biographies for the main characters at the end of the book, which is a nice little addition, and some of the books [although not this version] also include a potted autobiography, hence the synopsised version above, which I found at the back of another story I still had in my possession. The hardback I read was published in in 2019, by Quercus Editions Ltd., London, ISBN 978 1 78648 729 2; there is also a paperback, an eBook, and an audio book version.

Book Review

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Find Them Dead, by Peter James

This is a recent publication by this author, but he is very prolific, so it is actually only, to date, the fourth most recent, according to his official website, the most recent is scheduled to be published this month—September 2022; he certainly keeps Roy Grace busy, although evidently not as busy as the author! Interestingly, but incidentally [and actually insignificantly, with regard to this review], from his personal bio on the website, it transpires that he attended Charterhouse School, of which originally four [then later three, and finally two] members of one of my all-time favourite music groups, Genesis, were also alumni: they appear to have been contemporaries, but whether they knew each other, I can’t say. It is mere speculation that the school had a large influence upon his writing style: he won a poetry prize in 1967; but I think it’s also very likely that his subsequent, pre-author career [read his aforementioned bio for details] also played a significant part. Either way, he has been extremely successful, in terms of sales, since then.

This story is essentially about jury-fixing, but as usual with good crime stories, it is not one-dimensional; also, it is as much a courtroom drama, as it is a police procedural. In addition to a high-profile court case, which Grace’s erstwhile colleague, Glenn Branson, is dealing with, there is a brutal murder, which initially appears to be unconnected to the trial, but Grace’s input supplies the connection. He has just finished a placement with the Metropolitan Police, at a higher rank than previously and, although he felt that his work, identifying the causes of the knife crime epidemic in the capital and attempting to mitigate it, rather than expecting to eliminate it, was useful, he wanted to return to his home ‘turf’, even if that meant again being subordinate to his hated superior officer, Cassian Pewe: the tip-off Grace receives before his return, about an illegal drugs mastermind operating out of Brighton, confirms his decision.

The murder victim is a young lad with Down’s syndrome, and he is the younger brother of a low-level drugs trafficker who has been arrested when importing a replica Ferrari which is found to contain a large amount of cocaine. He pleads guilty to all charges but, although he works for a company owned by the apparently respectable local solicitor who is suspected of being the mastermind of the local County Lines operation, he claims not to either know, or have ever met the solicitor. One of the jurors for the solicitor’s trial is a woman, Meg Magellan, who is currently between executive-level marketing positions; five years ago, she lost her husband and son in a car accident, and her only remaining child, a daughter, Laura, is away in Ecuador, travelling on a gap year. Unfortunately, she is an easy target for the criminals who seem to know her mother’s every move, to ensure that she can influence the jury sufficiently to deliver the ‘not guilty’ verdict which will clear the solicitor.

Naturally, despite her revulsion at what she is being coerced into doing, she will do whatever she can to give the criminals what they want, to keep her daughter safe, even though she only knows of one possible ally on the jury, making her life a misery while the trial proceeds, because she has been warned that revealing her complicity to the authorities will be fatal for her daughter. Grace’s private life isn’t ignored in this story, at the expense of the crime aspects: his wife, Cleo suffers a miscarriage—they already have one infant, Noah, and they wanted to try for another baby—but Grace’s son, Bruno, from his previous marriage, is also with them, although he is not the easiest of boys to accommodate; but all this notwithstanding, he is happy to be home again. This is another eminently readable and—for me—enjoyable entry in the Roy Grace canon, and I am always happy to find new, unread ones. The hardback I read was published in 2020, by Macmillan, ISBN 978-1-5290-0430-4.

Book Review

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Oranges and Lemons, by Christopher Fowler

To borrow an analogy from Forrest Gump, dipping into a new [as in either previously unread, or the latest] Christopher Fowler book; most of which feature his characters detectives Arthur Bryant & John May, who work for London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit; is similar to opening an exotic box of chocolates: there will, very possibly, be plenty of oddities, most of which will be enjoyable, but there is also the reassurance of at least two familiar elements, which will perform as expected. I have remarked before about the humour to be found in these books [The Lonely Hour & Hall of Mirrors]—I think the description ‘quirky’ is somewhat overused now [at least it’s not zany]—but police procedurals can be somewhat dour [cf. the Shetland series, by Ann Cleeves; the Vera series maybe not so much] if not leavened by some humour, provided it isn’t inappropriate to the gravity of the situation.

This story, as in Hall of Mirrors, starts with a meeting in an eatery, but it is also bookended by another one, during both of which Bryant’s harassed editor, Simon Sartorius, is trying to make some sense of the former’s rambling efforts at encapsulating his life experience for a memoir; in the first, Bryant is about to hand his notes [sic] to his ghostwriter, Cynthia: “… an extremely skilled forger … a numismatist and IMHO a fine prose stylist … and … a terrible kleptomaniac.”; and in the last, he delivers the finished manuscript. Once again [or, more accurately, probably a virtually perennial Sword of Damocles], the PCU is under threat of closure, but this time, it is more than that: the sentence is in the process of being carried out, by “the barbarians … storming the gates of Rome” [specifically, “the Home Office agents in the employ of their police liaison CEO, Leslie Faraday”] thanks to a combination of authentic budget restrictions and the offence & outrage felt by the administrators of the aforementioned budget, as a result of the Unit’s actions—the previous story, The Lonely Hour, is referenced in this context. Arthur Bryant has gone missing, and there is also the not insignificant matter of his erstwhile partner John May’s recuperation, after being shot in the line of duty, so the latter’s movements are necessarily restricted, initially.

The Unit is permitted a reprieve of sorts, albeit an avowedly temporary one, after the Speaker of the House of Commons is almost murdered in a bizarre way—grist to the Unit’s mill, of course—when he is crushed under a large quantity of fresh oranges & lemons: ostensibly a delivery, rather than an obvious weapon, but one which was made in a life-threatening way; luckily for Michael Claremont, he survives being impaled by a shard of wood from one of the packing crates, but the attack frightens the government enough to allow London’s most unconventional police unit to investigate, hence the stay of execution. A short time prior to this, a bookshop in Bury Place, Bloomsbury, suffers an arson attack, and its owner, an expatriate Romanian, is arrested on suspicion of committing the crime, but subsequently, he apparently kills himself in his police cell; these two incidents are not initially linked, but Arthur Bryant is intrigued enough about the latter, especially given his love of esoteric bookshops, to try to discover the truth—indeed, promising the man’s widow that he will do just that. With regard to the former crime, he immediately latches onto the nursery rhyme significance, expecting a pattern of further attempts at murder to be carried out.

May wearies of home-bound recuperation so, as soon as he is physically able, he returns to work, and now that Bryant has returned from his sojourn of self-awareness—trying out various different forms of spiritual exploration—they work together again. More successful  [for the unfortunate, but apparently unconnected victims] murders occur, and they appear to support Bryant’s theory about the nursery rhyme connection, and each time, the police come frustratingly close to preventing it, and apprehending the unknown perpetrator, but failing. In the meantime, Bryant deduces that the murderer, or the person ordering them, must be a very rich, and therefore powerful, businessman: but the problem is proving it. Following his movements doesn’t give the team any leads. The team has been supplemented by two new members: one is a young intern, who seems to have inveigled her way onto the team; and the other one is a young man, Timothy Floris, who is a liaison/observer from the Independent Police Complaints Division of the Home Office. The former is given to making mostly inexplicable, gnomic statements which demonstrate some sort of intelligence, whilst the latter appears determined to remain neutral.

The culprit is finally unmasked without any of the mayhem caused by Bryant in previous stories, but as usual, he seems to be the only member of the team with sufficient insight, albeit arrived at by a circuitous route, to perceive the truth. There are none of the repartee word games from previous stories in this one, but perhaps B&M have grown out of them? Or perhaps it is because of the circumstances under which they are having to work; probably a bit of both. Another very enjoyable edition in the series, and the next one, London Bridge is Falling Down, is eagerly awaited. The paperback I read was published in 2021 [2020, Doubleday, an imprint of Transworld Publishers, London] by Penguin/Bantam, ISBN 978-0-8575-0410-4.

Book Review

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Deadlock, by Quintin Jardine

In common with the other one of Jardine’s books which I have reviewed, The Roots of Evil, which immediately precedes this one in the timeline, there is a plethora of characters, and their relationships & individual characteristics might become more comfortably familiar after reading a couple more [and there are plenty to go at!], but I still struggle, occasionally, to always remember who does what [if job designations aren’t given], and how they are related; but I feel I am, at least, starting to get to know them. As this is set in Scotland, and the structure of policing there is somewhat different from that of England, there is a division of labour between the two primary police bases in Glasgow and Edinburgh, although it is not unknown for officers from both cities to work on the same cases, as happens here, eventually. I use this qualification advisedly, because I was beginning to wonder, by the time I had nearly reached the half-way point in the book, if I was going to read about anything other than the complex personal & professional relationships between some of the characters, and the machinations arising therefrom.

The crime aspect of the narrative starts slowly, and is not actually recognised as such immediately: Bob Skinner, now happily retired from his Chief Constable position with Police Scotland, is an executive with an international media organisation, although he still maintains contact with officers he has latterly been a mentor for, and is prepared to offer advice on cases, if requested; he is also still a Special Constable. The pandemic is now a regular feature of recently-written stories, and as part of his personal public service remit, he joins a group set up by a friend, author Matthew Reid, for the purpose of helping local elderly people who might be struggling in one way or another as a result of the lockdown [which doesn’t seem to unduly restrict Skinner’s freedom of movement, however]. Unfortunately, two of these ‘clients’ die in quick succession and, whilst the circumstances of their deaths don’t give rise to any cause for concern from all the usual authorities, Bob Skinner’s instincts begin to worry him; the husband of one of the deceased also died not so long ago but, again, in ostensibly unsuspicious circumstances, and this fact is brought to the attention of a mid-rank police officer, by a daughter who persists in thinking something was missed in the original verdict of natural causes. The only common link between these cases that can be found, initially, is the presence of a young lad on a bicycle, but no-one knows who he is, or what his involvement might be.

The story, whose only crime-related interest hitherto has been this low-level investigation, is then given a significant injection of excitement when a particularly gruesome murder is discovered in Glasgow, and there are implications of security service involvement. Bob Skinner still has connections with MI5 which, as far as the public is aware anyway, does not operate in Scotland, so there is an obvious incentive for this status quo to be maintained. Unfortunately, it soon becomes apparent that the recently retired Chief Constable, Andrew Martin, could be the perpetrator but, given his previous status, and his current political ambition—reckoned to be a shoo-in—this is an investigation that will have to be handled extremely sensitively; his fractious relationship with Bob Skinner doesn’t help, of course: Martin had a liaison with Skinner’s daughter, Alex, while he was still married to another police officer, which doesn’t endear Martin to Skinner in any way. Until very near the end of the narrative, it appears that the deaths of the elderly people, if they were, in fact, murders, might have been motiveless crimes, but Skinner discovers that someone of his acquaintance has been deviously clever: identifying the person is one thing, but can the person be found, given that the person has made very strenuous and well planned efforts to disappear?

I am very happy for a narrative to unfold slowly, providing a reason for a crime story is presented before too long; otherwise, it is a story about a potentially confusing network of personal relationships which, on its own, is not really my cup of tea. This story really delivers, however, using the pandemic as a plausible background to the story, and I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that the plotting, and the planning of the killer are worthy of the Mistress of Murder, Agatha Christie: there is even a major clue in the narrative, but of course, hindsight is very useful in recognising this, and I will certainly not be revealing it! A new Bob Skinner story, The Bad Fire, is already available, so I will eagerly await its arrival in my local library! The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021] by HEADLINE PUBLISHING GROUP, London, ISBN 978-1-4722-8285-9.

Book Review

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Angel, by LJ Ross

This is one of Louise Ross’s earlier DCI Ryan stories—the fifth, in fact—and the review of one of her later ones, Cragside, which I posted only a few weeks ago; mere serendipity that I came across this one so soon; does contain details of action which occurs after the conclusion of this one, but I don’t think the first review is a plot spoiler for this one, so I would respectfully suggest reading the earlier one, to get the characters’ details, and I won’t repeat them here. Whereas Cragside is a slightly claustrophobic story, in that a lot of the action happens in & around one specific location, this one is a more normal police procedural, which can be comforting in a certain way, and all the principal characters are present here, including a certain criminal character also mentioned in the later story.

In common with many novels [and Cragside], there is a prologue, detailing the unfortunate death at Easter, 1990, of a young girl, resident in what might be a children’s home run by nuns, and the present-day [2016] murder of a woman, by a man who clearly has some sort of religious fixation; there is even a quotation from Vladimir Nabokov, no less, to set the scene. After this, we settle into the narrative of the Northumbria police trying to solve the murders of two young red-headed women, who have been found in quick succession over the Easter weekend in freshly dug graves in local graveyards: both women’s bodies have been arranged in a particular pose, post mortem. Another, older, woman is found murdered in her own house, but this death is not seen as connected to those of the young women, and an elderly nun is also murdered, although because her body is not found immediately, the connection to the murders of the red-headed women is not made quickly. The religious element is obviously the key to solving these crimes, but of course, Ryan knows that, despite his antipathy towards organised religion, he & his team will have to proceed carefully, to avoid antagonising potentially litigious clerics and, at the same time, stay in the ‘good books’ [if that is even possible] of his superior, Chief Constable Sandra Morrison.

I wanted to be able to give this book a good review, after having moderately enjoyed the aforementioned earlier story, and the plot is reasonably well structured, but it is let down slightly by a few small niggles [and one major one] which detracted from my overall enjoyment of it. I have mentioned this before, so I don’t think I need to apologise again for it, but the use of Americanisms in a definitively British narrative always grates with me: hood for a car bonnet; sputter where we have always used splutter; and my favourite [sic] bête noire, stomp—at least Ryan doesn’t drink ‘Scotch’ whiskey! I never set out to emulate King Cnut [notwithstanding my republican sentiments], but I feel like that’s who I might be turning into! The major reservation I can’t describe in any detail [sorry to tantalise], other than to mention a random plot element which is introduced late in the narrative, but I was left feeling slightly let down by the ending: unfortunately, this is not explained in the epilogue, the author’s note, or the acknowledgments; I will, however, keep my eyes open for other books in this series. The [Amazon Fulfillment {sic}, printed in Poland] paperback I read was self-published by LJ Ross, 2016, ISBN 978-1-5190-1093-3.

Book Review

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The Furthest Station, by Ben Aaronovitch

DISCLAIMER: This is not a Harry Potter story!* This is a small, and relatively short book; indeed, the final 18 [unnumbered] pages are devoted to an interview with the author by Paul Stark from [the publisher] “Orion’s audio team”, although, to be fair, this is quite instructive within the context of the subject matter, and the author’s views on it; so, at only 118 pages, it could probably more accurately be described as a novella; but whatever, it is self-contained, and perfectly able to stand on its own, as part of the PC Peter Grant series. It is something of a Curate’s Egg for me: I was attracted to it partly by the cover, which is quirkily eye-catching, but also because it includes the London Underground in its locations, and at least one of the characters is an employee of this august workhorse of an organisation.

PC Peter Grant is an officer in the Special Assessment Unit; otherwise known as the Folly; presumably a section of the Metropolitan Police [although that isn’t specified], and his superior is Detective Chief Inspector Nightingale, who appears to be some type of wizard; or else, a normal human who has become adept at magic, whose existence in this alternate reality is a given. Grant is able to perform minor magic, such as non-physical personal defence, and conjuring what is known as a werelight, which appears to have magical properties over & above simple illumination; he has been called in by his friend & colleague Sergeant Jaget Kumar of the London Underground division of the British Transport Police, and technically, the latter works directly for the Chief Constable as a troubleshooter and “go-to problem solver, but really he was there to deal with the weird shit on the Underground.” Kumar had been given a file of complaints handled by Project Guardian, “a joint BTP/Met/Transport for London/City Police initiative to deal with sexual assaults and offensive behaviour on the transport system.”

They had received a cluster of complaints about assaults on Underground trains using the Metropolitan Line by a ‘man who wasn’t there’, but when the complainants were questioned, their memories of the events, if it was immediately following, were sketchy, although that isn’t unusual for such cases, but if some time subsequently had elapsed, they denied all knowledge of the assaults. Hence Kumar & Grant’s involvement. The scenario does involves some acceptance of the fantasy element, but it is not so far removed from many people’s belief in the possibility of the existence of the paranormal, and phenomena such as ghosts, so it is not too fantastical, and there is some humour in it as well, which leavens the drama. *Many readers might see some similarities, in the magical knowledge & experience possessed & demonstrated by Grant & Nightingale, with the almost improbably famous Harry Potter stories, but I don’t think that this story and, presumably, others in the series, are a serious attempt to emulate them, and they should be read as such.

What brought me to the Curate’s Egg assessment was the colloquial language employed by the protagonist; I readily admit that I am pedantic with regard to the use of the English language, especially written, where preselection is not only implied, but expected, and I happily concede that PC Grant is not the most erudite of policemen, notwithstanding his relative youth, and [whatever his ethnicity] he is not going to think or speak the language as correctly as an English professor at one of our revered universities should [verb chosen advisedly], but it goes against the grain to read the prime example of this where he says, more than once in his first-person narration, “… me and [A N Other]” instead of “[A N Other] and I …”. I’m not sure what the reason for this might be: is it to make our hero seem ‘street-smart’, or is it to appeal to what I fear is a predominantly young[er than I], linguistically challenged audience; or both? Either way, and I make no excuses, but I just don’t like it, and its use grated on me. Otherwise, I enjoyed the book as a whole, and the dénouement was satisfying. The paperback I read was published in 2018 [2017] by Gollancz, an imprint of the Orion Publishing Group Ltd., London, ISBN 978-1-4732-2243-4.

Book Review

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Stasi Child, by David Young

This is the first book in this series, featuring East German Volkspolizei [People’s Police] officer Karin Müller, her deputy Werner Tilsner, and their regular companion on investigations, Kriminaltechniker [Forensic officer] Jonas Schmidt. I have already reviewed a later story, Stasi Winter, very recently and, although I do mention some of the characters’ backstory in it, because I had already previously read the first one, but not reviewed it, I thought it would be worth reacquainting myself with it, and my readers, if you feel that a more detailed knowledge of the characters’ progress would benefit your understanding of the later story [and any others in the series I might be lucky enough to find]. It is February 1975 and, notwithstanding the inevitably bleak east German winter climate, the postwar communist régime is well & truly entrenched and operating relatively efficiently, the way that communist régimes do: enforcing their control through paranoia & terror, with little enjoyment and few benefits for the Citizen Comrades.

At this point in their careers, Karin is an Oberleutnant [First Lieutenant] and Tilsner is an Unterleutnant [Second Lieutenant]; Schmidt doesn’t have a rank, as such, so his designation will not alter, for the foreseeable future, at least. At the instigation of a Stasi [secret police] officer, Oberstleutnant [Lieutenant Colonel] Klaus Jäger, they are requested to investigate an unusual incident: the body of a young girl has been found near the Wall in a cemetery in the Mitte district of Berlin, where they are based, so a short hop in a car from their offices, normally. There is something unusual about the case, though, hence the Stasi’s interest: contrary to the normal demise suffered, according to the official position, by Citizens foolishly attempting to escape the democratic paradise of the People’s Republic, the dead girl was apparently shot from the West while entering the East—the immediately available evidence appears to support this hypothesis. On closer inspection, however, certain elements arouse suspicion, plus the fact that, despite having been specifically requested by Jäger, which is supported by Karin’s superior, Oberst [Colonel] Reiniger, the Stasi’s involvement should not be mentioned, unless absolutely necessary.

The parlous state of Karin’s marriage; her husband Gottfried has only recently returned from a ‘re-education’ stint teaching at the youth reform school on the island of Rügen, in the north of the country [a location which will again feature in the later story]; and a possible infidelity with Tilsner [the complete recall of which is impossible, as a result of excessive alcohol intake the previous evening] at the start of the story, only serve to make life difficult for her: Tilsner seems to affect a blithe disregard for such complications. They have been instructed to ascertain the identity of the victim, but to disregard the circumstances causing her death; of course, telling Karin this is almost guaranteed to have the opposite effect and, before long, she realises that they will have to tread very carefully, despite Jäger’s involvement being a confusing mixture of qualified assistance and admonishment: Karin is canny enough to know that Jäger must be holding something back. Interspersed with the current action, commencing nine months earlier, is the continuing story of another later returning character: the red-haired fifteen-year old Irma Behrendt, who is a resident at the youth reform school on Rügen, whose life is made wretched by the combination of exhausting work & repressive living conditions.

Before long, Karin’s enquiries take the team to Rügen, but at this stage, Irma is not included in the investigation: it is only later, when the focus of the case moves to the Harz mountains, in the centre of the country, but the mid-western boundary of the DDR, that the connection is made. More I cannot reveal! This is a very good introduction to the series, and it lays the groundwork with all the frustrations & complications of living in a repressive country, whose régime many people still found reasons to support, but which is now looked back on with a mixture of many conflicting emotions: I will be very happy to find other stories in this series. The paperback I read was published in 2016 [2015] by Twenty7 Books, London, ISBN 978-1-7857-7006-7.

Book Review

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Cragside, by L.J. Ross

What attracted me to this book initially was the very tangential connection I have with the place, which actually exists, although I have never visited it or worked there myself; the latter is more relevant, because some of my acting colleagues have worked there in a rôle-playing capacity, responding directly with members of the public who visit this property, which is managed by the National Trust, although in the story, it has continued in private ownership from its earlier owner in the 1800s, William [later Lord] Armstrong. The description in the book slightly exaggerates the gothic eccentricity of the building, although the book’s cover does show an accurate pictorial rendering, and it does indeed possess a variety of features not present in most large manor houses: it was first built as a shooting lodge for Armstrong in 1862-4, but it was enlarged until assuming its present form in 1882, and it was the first house in the world to be lit using hydroelectric power. The detailed Wikipedia page about it can be found here.

All of Louise Ross’s DCI Ryan stories are set in, or near, glorious Northumberland, where she was born and, again, now lives. Detective Chief Inspector Maxwell Finley-Ryan; generally known just as Ryan, partly to distance himself from his privileged background; is renting a cottage in the grounds of the eponymous stately pile, because his apartment was contaminated by his previous case, when he fought a murderous criminal known as the Hacker, so he has decided to sell the apartment. Ryan’s fiancée, Doctor Anna Taylor, lost more in the way of property in the course of the case than he did, because her Durham riverside cottage was destroyed in a fire, so she is sharing the longterm holiday cottage with Ryan for the summer while they recuperate and think about wedding plans, as well as working: Anna is finalising her latest historical textbook, on Viking Northumberland, before the start of a new academic term. After residing peacefully on the estate for almost four months, they are invited to a murder-mystery-themed party [actually the staff summer party], which is an indication that they have been accepted into “Cragside’s select community”. Very predictably, this is where the story really starts!

During the course of the evening, the current owners’ valet, Victor Swann, a well-preserved man in his seventies, is found dead; initially, the circumstances are interpreted as non-suspicious, and ostensibly & tragically accidental, given that he appeared to have hit his head as a result of a fall down some stone cellar steps, but Ryan—no doubt using his detective’s well-honed sixth sense [something most of them seem to possess: the good ones, anyway]—has indefinable suspicions. He then has to assert his authority to lead the enquiries, and before long, another death occurs: although it could also have been accidental, it would seem much less likely than the previous one. Up to this point, the reader is left to wonder how the event described in the prologue, which occurred forty-one years previously, in the summer of 1975, connects with the current scenario: a ship under construction on Tyneside explodes in a fireball, killing many shipbuilding workers, and consequently leaving many children fatherless; but it should not be too difficult, as the narrative progresses, to arrive at the conclusion that the deaths are somehow connected with someone’s obsessive quest for revenge, although this does not become clear until quite late in the story.

Overall, this is a well-constructed story, and the perpetrator was not at all obvious: it could have been easy to be misled, which is the mark of a good writer. Ross has written fifteen DCI Ryan stories, including this one, so there is plenty of opportunity to become familiar with the main characters; she has also written three novels featuring the character of forensic psychologist Doctor Alexander Gregory, who is based in Ireland. Criminal profilers is another popular crime genre, these days. Despite Northumberland famously being Vera territory, there is surely room for another senior detective based in the same area, and Ryan is, necessarily of course, a horse of a different feather than the rumpled & overweight beloved detective creation of Ann Cleeves. The paperback I read was published in 2020 [2017, LJ Ross] by Dark Skies Publishing, ISBN 978-1-9123-1006-7.

Book Review

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The Curator, by M.W.Craven

Mike Craven spent his formative years in the army, travelling the world, and when he left, he became a probation officer before turning his hand to fiction writing, so he has a fair breadth of experience in the less salubrious aspects of human life upon which to draw for his fiction, and if this story is exemplary of his, to date, minimal canon, he does draw upon this experience; although, to be fair, the violence and psychopathic lack of concern for other human beings’ suffering here is no worse than I have encountered in other thrillers, nor is it worse than any one might find in the output of more ‘respectable’ and well-embedded authors, such as Agatha Christie. This book is the latest entrant in the Washington Poe series, which to date consists of two precursors & one short story collection; other than that, there are two books in the Avison Fluke series—Fluke is a police detective inspector, and it would appear that Craven has a predilection for slightly unusual names, although that could be a canny device that helps to ensure that his character names are remembered, given the multiplicity of police characters from which readers can choose.

Washington Poe is a police officer; a sergeant; he is not a regular detective however, but an analyst in the Serious Crimes Analysis Section: “the National Crime Agency unit charged with investigating serial killers and apparently motiveless murders”, and he is based in Cumbria, a very scenic part of England. By way of a difference in police procedurals, Poe’s partner is not another detective, or a superior officer, but a nerdy female data analyst, Matilda ‘Tilly’ Bradshaw [apologies if the term ‘nerdy’ seems unfair, or ungallant, but surely that can just as easily be applied to a woman as to a man?]. Tilly is highly intelligent, coming to SCAS, her first ‘real’ job, from more years in academia than most graduates, and she is very probably somewhere on the autism spectrum; although I must admit I am slightly uncomfortable with this concept, as I think nearly everybody could be so categorised to some degree, and it does enable people with that particular character flaw to be judgmental about those who are, as I might describe it, otherwise enabled. Suffice to say that Poe, the name he is mostly called, and Tilly are fast friends, and her logic counteracts his more impetuous approach to policing.

The story starts with three murders, which are not discovered until after three pairs of fingers, each of which pairs is cut from the same individual victim, but also, each finger in a pair is cut at a different time: one ante mortem, and the other post mortem. The finger pairs are left in seemingly random locations, and there are no clues, including usable CCTV images, as to who left the gruesome gifts. There is only one common factor, other than the fingers themselves, which ties the three murders together: at each scene, the tag #BSC6 has been left; two are printed on ordinary paper, but the third is custom-printed onto a beverage mug, and substituted for an innocuous mug in a Secret Santa game, intended to facilitate a marriage proposal. Needless to say, the proposal doesn’t happen, although there are other complicating circumstances surrounding the endeavour. The hashtag on these cryptic texts suggests an internet connection, and the unsettling connection is soon found. Tilly & Poe discover who all three victims were in fairly short order, but it isn’t until Poe is contacted by an FBI agent, who is in the wilderness professionally, because of her allegedly outlandish theories, that the British investigators are informed about the subject of the story: the Curator, an anonymous contract killer.

Poe is more accommodating to the American’s information than her own colleagues & superiors have been, but it is some time before he & Tilly can ascertain the common element which caused the deaths of the three British victims; they are also mindful of the fact that a killer, who could strike so apparently easily and anonymously, could very possibly strike again, so as is common in many such stories, there is a race against time to prevent this and catch the perpetrator. Given that the violence was not too graphic, and that the tension was nicely applied, I enjoyed reading this story, and Craven’s characters are interesting enough, without being unnecessarily eccentric, so I would be very happy to find another of his books. The paperback I read was published in 2020 by Constable, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, London, ISBN 978-1-47213-194-2.

Book Review

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Birdman, by Mo Hayder

This is another new author to me: as at 2008, she has written seven DI Jack Caffery stories, and three standalone thrillers. Nearly all of them appear to deal with the worst of human depravity, which makes me wonder how someone can actually enjoy writing about it, but we are all different, I suppose: quite often, I am mightily glad to reach the end of a story which deals with murder, torture, and other varieties of violence, but it must be fair to say that as a species, we seem to take vicarious pleasure in other people’s suffering, and a police procedural, into which category most thrillers fall, would probably be perceived as somewhat boring or unexciting if it dealt with non-violent crimes such as tax fraud. That said, the violence & depravity in this story plumb depths which I would struggle to conceive if I wanted to write a thriller. That is not to say that this story, and others in this series, won’t be successful; of course, it is touted, on the cover, as a “Sunday Times bestseller”, which must be true, if it’s in a newspaper?

Jack Caffery is a detective Inspector in London; presumably with the Metropolitan Police, although that isn’t specified; he is only 34, which seems quite young to me, to be in such a relatively high rank, but I have very little knowledge of the internal workings of the police. He is a member of an Area Major Investigation Pool [AMIP for short], transferred recently from CID, and according to the acknowledgments at the end of the book, this appears to be a real element of the contemporary police structure. Some bodies have been found on a piece of waste ground, a half-derelict aggregate yard in north Greenwich, near the deserted Millennium Dome. Although some of them are badly mutilated, they share a peculiarity which causes the perpetrator to acquire the sobriquet Birdman. The victims are all young women; a sadly highly vulnerable societal group, but the way they have been mutilated suggests to the police that the killer they are looking for must have some medical, and possibly surgical, experience.

Jack has some helpful and, occasionally, accommodating colleagues, and a tolerant superior; he does, however, have a thorn in his side in the form of a DI from another AMIP group, which has been drafted in to assist with this investigation, but this DI, Diamond, seems to make it his business to thwart Jack at every possible opportunity, and because they are equal in rank, there’s not a lot Jack can do about it. He also has a needy but rich girlfriend, Veronica, whom he is trying to find a good reason to ditch, but this is complicated by her recent cancer treatment; he does, however, have the, by now slightly stereotypical classic car, an old Jaguar, even if it is described as “battered”: no Vauxhall Cavalier for him! Just to complete his psychological palette, he is still carrying a weight of guilt from when his older brother Ewan disappeared from their back garden when they were children, and he is certain that their rear neighbour, Ivan Penderecki, a convicted paedophile, is responsible, except that he has never been able to find any evidence to implicate Penderecki.

The investigation is not helped by Diamond’s certainty that a local black low-level drug dealer is responsible, thereby clearly exposing Diamond’s colour prejudice, and the author uses an idea in the plot which must be fairly uncommon, but probably not unique; suffice to say that it prevents them from identifying the perpetrator before there is another killing, and by this time, Jack has become romantically involved with one of the main characters who, needless to say, puts herself in deadly jeopardy by being, with the best will in the world, stupidly headstrong. I am somewhat ambivalent about recommending this book: if you enjoy gory thrillers, this will be “right up your street”, but if you are of a nervous disposition, perhaps best to avoid it! That being said, this is the first in the Jack Caffery series, so subsequent stories might be slightly less gory; but, then again, maybe not…… The paperback I read was published in 2008 [2000] by Bantam Press, a division of Transworld Publishers, London, ISBN 978-0-5538-2046-1.