Book Reviews


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Anthology #6

The Daves Next Door, by Will Carver

I was sorely tempted to bail on this book, well before I reached its end; looking at it charitably, I suppose it could be considered to be ‘worthy’, if it ‘makes people think’; that is: consider their life, as an individual, and how their opinions & actions impact other people, but I have to confess I found it too full of existential angst, and a disjointed narrative which is always presenting alternatives—what if this didn’t happen, because in another universe, in fact [but is it?] it didn’t. The main theme of the story is a series of bomb outrages in London, in the very near future [the current year, 2023, in fact], and parallel to the descriptions of the various characters & their situations are reports from the Intelligence and Security Committee, which examine how the outrages could have been allowed to happen, and why they weren’t prevented. There is also a suggested metaphysical element with one character, and a thread connecting the narrative is chapters in which one of the putative suicide bombers asks himself, while he is riding the London Underground, what he is doing, why he is doing it, and even if he is actually God [as in the Judeo-Christian deity; or perhaps the Moslem God: it’s not entirely clear]. This author has written several other books, so I am prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, but this one was not to my taste. The paperback I read was published in 2022 by Orenda Books, London, ISBN 978-1-9145-8518-0.

The Colorado Kid, by Stephen King

Surely, everybody who reads books or watches films, or both, must have heard of this author; but until now, I had no interest in reading one of his books, fearing that they all fell into the horror category, of which I am no aficionado [I was saddened to learn, recently, that this term originates in bullfighting]. However, I had ignored, or forgotten, that he also wrote The Green Mile, The Shining, and the source book for The Shawshank Redemption. This novella was something of a coup for the publishers, because they never thought they would be able to tempt an author of this stature to write for their revived ‘pulp’ genre, Hard Case Crime, but he jumped at the chance. This is more of a mystery than a ‘whodunit’, because although the story concerns the death of an initially unidentified man on a Maine beach, the narrative is a leisurely discussion about it between two local newspapermen, one of whom is a sprightly ninety years old, the other of who is somewhat improbably named David Bowie, and their very young colleague, Stephanie McCann, who is on a temporary work placement as a graduate student. It might be a spoiler to reveal that no provable motive for the death is revealed, but the pleasure in the story is in the interplay between the characters. The paperback I read was published in 2019 by Titan Books, London, ISBN 978-1-7890-9155-7.

Shot in Southwold, by Suzette A. Hill

This story precedes the one I have reviewed previously, The Cambridge Plot, in an earlier anthology, and it revisits a location which was used in an earlier novel, A Southwold Mystery, and to which reference is made in this story. This time, the plot revolves around a film which is being shot there, so no spoiler here, because the pun is easily found in the title. Also, the year is specifically stated as 1960 [albeit on the back cover], but even though that is more than half a century behind us, the atmosphere is not unduly historical, save for the absence of the technology which we now take for granted. The trio of characters from the later novel, Felix Smythe, Cedric Dillworthy, and Rosy Gilchrist, is present here, along with one or two other regulars. Felix has been offered a small part in the film, although the plot is somewhat difficult to discern: not least for the actors! Once the groundwork has been laid, and well into the narrative, one of the actors is murdered so, despite their having minimal enthusiasm for becoming embroiled in the unravelling of same, the trio is inevitably drawn into it. Despite some jeopardy for one of the characters near the end, the narrative ticks along at a leisurely but not unenjoyable pace towards a conclusion where the local constabulary is shown to be stereotypically plodding. The paperback I read was published in 2017, by Allison & Busby Limited, London, ISBN 978-0-7490-2131-3.

The Enigma of Garlic, by Alexander McCall Smith

This is, presumably, the latest episode in what could, depending upon one’s assessment of these popular productions, be described as a soap opera; I don’t watch any [or listen to any, with reference to the [very] long-running British radio drama, The Archers], but I will take a neutral approach, and call it an episodic saga, despite the geographic dislocation. The same regular dramatis personae appears: seven year old Bertie, in training to be a figurative doormat [although his good friend Ranald Braveheart Macpherson recognises Bertie’s humanity, nevertheless] under the tutelage of his putative fiancée and Harridan in training Olive, with the sterling sycophantic support of her acolyte Pansy. One of the other threads concerns café owner Big Lou, who marries ex-strongman Fat Bob, only for rumours of his infidelity, and possibly even bigamy, to emerge; these are covertly investigated by local aphorism-dispensing nun, Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiore Montagna. There is no explicit suggestion that the saga will not continue, and possibly a familiarity with Edinburgh & its environs might facilitate a greater enjoyment of these gentle peregrinations, but it isn’t necessary: they make a pleasant change from, and antidote to police procedurals with the inevitable blood & gore, and even espionage stories can become somewhat formulaic, so I will happily read other episodes in this series; the eponymous garlic barely gets a mention, by the way. The hardback I read was published in 2022 by Polygon, an imprint of Birlinn Ltd., Edinburgh, ISBN 978-1-8469-7590-5.

Book Reviews

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Anthology #5

The Poisoned Rock, by Robert Daws

This is one of possibly several books which I have read and, for whatever reason at the time, thought: “Nah, I won’t review this”—not because I didn’t enjoy it—so, clearly, this is not the first reading, but my memory is not sufficiently eidetic to spoil a further reading. The Rock in question is Gibraltar, and the author is a successful actor near whom I have had the pleasure of working some years ago, on an ITV production called The Royal, a spinoff from the very successful & well loved Heartbeat, on which I also worked, many times, mostly in a background capacity. As is often the case [for no other obvious reason than sheer happenstance], this is the second book in what is currently a trilogy, featuring the characters of Detective Chief Inspector Gus Broderick, of the Royal Gibraltar Police, and Detective Sergeant Tamara Sullivan, who is currently midway through a three-month secondment there, mainly because of a problem in her work with the Metropolitan Police in London. The story concerns a film which is being made on the rock [a subject with which the author would be easily familiar] about a female spy during World War II; somebody disagrees with the premise & the reputation of the protagonist, and sets out to stop the production by murdering people associated with it. The narrative is very effectively structured & paced, so I am happy to recommend this story, and I hope that the other two books in the series are as good. The paperback I read was published in 2017 by Urbane Publications Ltd., Chatham, ISBN 978-1-9113-3121-6.

Explosive, by Cliff Todd

This is a fascinating summary of the career of one of Britain’s foremost former forensic explosives scientists, although it could also be worrying, if one were of the mindset that one could be vulnerable to the threats described in this book. A series of abhorrent [as they should be to any reasonable-minded person whose worldview has not been disgustingly prejudiced by religious dogma and/or psychopathy] bombing outrages or attempts is described, as well as the author’s background, and what led him to this essential work. The first chapter begins the story of identifying the perpetrators of the Lockerbie bombing, which will surely remain long in the minds of British people who were alive at the time, and many Americans, who are relatives or friends of the victims. It is a sad fact that the forensic experts will mostly be one step behind the murderous criminals, and the author had to call on all of his expertise & ingenuity to at least endeavour to keep pace with new developments in explosive device design. It will probably come as no surprise that the reputation of his department ensured that their help was called upon many times by foreign governments, to identify the perpetrators of bombing incidents in their countries. We were lucky to have had such a capable expert working to keep us safe, and his legacy will, thankfully, continue in that capacity. The paperback I read was published in 2022 by Headline Publishing Group, London, ISBN 978-1-4722-7899-9.

Trouble in Paradise, by Robert B. Parker

This author, who died in 2010, wrote an almost bewildering multiplicity of books in four different series, plus a few with other authors [including Raymond Chandler], although it is possible that many could perhaps be described as novellas, like this one, which weighs in at only 190 pages. That said, however, despite his writing style being described by polar opposite reviewers in the Sunday Telegraph and the Guardian as “hard-boiled”, the action is written in a refreshingly crisp manner, with minimal extraneous detail, and relatable dialogue for contemporary American characters, with the action set in & around Boston, Massachusetts. The eponymous Paradise is a small coastal town, and the action concerns a planned heist on a small, not easily accessible adjacent island. The perpetrators are led by a cold-blooded career criminal, who assembles a small team of associates with the appropriate skills, along with his devoted girlfriend, and the forces of law & order are led by the town police chief, Jesse Stone, an ex-LA cop, who has a somewhat convoluted love-life, including his ex-wife, who has moved ‘back east’ to be close to him. I’ve never been greatly attracted by this genre of crime fiction hitherto, but this story was very easy to read, and the resolution was satisfying. The paperback I read was published in 2013 [1998], by No Exit Press, Harpenden [GB Putnam, USA], ISBN 978-1-8424-3443-7.

Bleeding Heart Yard, by Elly Griffiths

Elly Griffiths is now one of my favourite authors: I know before reading the first page that I will enjoy reading the story, and this one didn’t disappoint. I have possibly done my readers [thank you, by the way!] a disservice by not reviewing the previous story featuring this protagonist, Detective Inspector Harbinder Kaur, who now works for the Metropolitan Police, but who previously worked for the force near her home with her parents in Shoreham, so this move is both a promotion, and an expression of independence. The story is narrated by one of Harbinder’s colleagues, DS Cassie Fitzherbert, and we know from the start that she has a guilty secret: all the more guilty, as she is a police officer, because when she was eighteen, she murdered one of her fellow sixthformers. The book’s title does seem a bit obscure, but its relevance is gradually revealed as the story progresses. Cassie was on the periphery of a group of friends at school called, somewhat ironically, The Group. Two of them have gone on to become MPs [on opposite sides], one is a pop star, and one is a successful actress; the others are trying to avoid resentment at the ‘famous’ ones’ success. At a school reunion, one of the MPs is found dead, and Cassie finds herself a suspect; although, not the only one. I won’t reveal more, but the story plays out nicely to a slightly unexpected outcome. The hardback I read was published in 2022 by Quercus Editions Ltd., London, ISBN 978-1-5294-0995-6.

Book Reviews

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Anthology #4

The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough

I am reasonably confident that I will not be alone in knowing very little about Wilbur & Orville Wright, other than that they were the first to achieve powered flight, in 1903; this excellent biography redresses this for me, and it is a very comprehensive summary of the lives of these two highly industrious, but also very close individuals, who changed the world so comprehensively with their tireless & assiduous work to achieve their dream and bring it to reality. The transition from bicycle makers to aeroplane technologists might seem almost unfeasible, but they clearly had the capability & the determination to work methodically and master the physics of their project, progressing from simple kites to sophisticated & aerodynamically sound flying machines: that included the design & manufacture of their own internal combustion engines to provide the motive power; although they did have some very capable help with that. From the early struggles & failures, and daunting environmental conditions in their testing location, they battled through against some ridicule, to final success & well deserved recognition. This highly recommended book is supported by some excellent photos & diagrams. The paperback I read was published in 2016 [2015] by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd., ISBN 978-1-4711-5038-8.

Get Me The Urgent Biscuits, by Sweetpea Slight

Although I am only really a dilettante when it comes to ‘the theatre’, because my involvement hitherto has been exclusively in the amateur sector, I very much enjoy the process of acting, and I have worked with both amateur & professional actors at different levels in film & television, some of whom have become permanent & dear friends, so this memoir by a woman with the endearing nickname of Sweetpea is a captivating glimpse into the world of professional theatre in the 1980s & ’90s, predominantly but not only in London, and the personalities she encountered in her work as assistant to the indomitable and almost stereotypically eccentric Thelma Holt. Similarly to Holt, Slight had aspirations to be an actor [although Holt did work professionally as an actor, initially], but they were both aware that acting is an extremely precarious profession, so Holt moved into producing, and when, perhaps serendipitously, Slight started working near Holt, albeit on work experience, Holt saw her potential and took Slight under her wing. Thereafter, a heady whirl of work followed for the next twenty years, during which Slight had to contend with low wages but high job satisfaction, and her uncertainty about her sexuality. The book ends with Slight deciding to branch out on her own, but with no indication as to her chance of success in the future: this article throws some light on it—she is now PA to Anne Robinson [the expression “out of the frying pan…” springs to mind!] The large print paperback I read was published in 2018 [2017] by W F Howes Ltd., Leicester [Weidenfeld & Nicolson], ISBN 978-1-5100-9803-9.

Codename Faust, by Gustaf Skördeman

This is the second book in this series featuring Detective Sara Nowak, and it is set in & around Stockholm; the previous one, the author’s debut thriller, was called Geiger, and this was the codename of the spy whom Nowak unmasked. This, and other backstory details which the author helpfully feeds into this narrative, could rather spoil a potential reader’s enjoyment of the first, after reading this one, but the protagonist’s credentials are established, nevertheless. Nowak is the almost archetypal feisty, independent female police officer, prepared to bypass normal rules of procedure to achieve her goals, and she had a difficult childhood, although here she is, ostensibly at least, happily married to a successful music promoter, and his family is also very rich. She is back at work under some sufferance, after being badly injured during the operation described in the previous story, and when, beyond her acceptable jurisdiction, questionable deaths, or obvious murders of former spies start occurring, she is warned against becoming involved, but what does she do? [no three guesses required!] I wish I knew Stockholm well, or had a detailed city map, to follow the story, but that didn’t unduly detract from my enjoyment of this story, which has a clever twist right at the end. The hardback I read was published in 2022 [2020], by Zaffre, London [Bokförlaget Polaris, Sweden], ISBN 978-1-8387-7654-1.

The Cambridge Plot, by Suzette A. Hill

This is a somewhat whimsical little story; although not quite so high on the whimsy scale as the Bertie Wooster adventures; or, indeed, those of Lord Peter Wimsey, which aren’t actually whimsical. However, the title is quite a good pun, which I won’t explain here, but it should very quickly become clear, because it is applicable to 2 different strands of the story. It is set in the halls of Cambridge academe, and after a fairly protracted [but not unenjoyable] introduction, there is a series of deaths connected to the commissioning and execution of a new statue, intended to commemorate a previous, illustrious [although not to all] alumnus. This story features returning characters Professor Cedric Dillworthy, his long-time ‘friend’ Felix Smythe [a London florist who enjoys royal endorsement], and a young woman, Rosy Gilchrist, who works at the British Museum. The time period isn’t specified, but it appears to be set in the 1960s, so there is a whiff of the Miss Marple about it. The deaths are explained without any high degree of sleuthing being required, and there isn’t enough jeopardy to really set the heart racing, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing: it is an easy read from an author who only took up writing at the age of sixty-four, after a career in teaching [so perhaps not prompted by The Beatles?]. The paperback I read was published in 2019 [2018] by Allison & Busby, London, ISBN 978-0-7490-2298-3.

Have a go!

Have you ever thought about sharing ideas with your friends, but you find platforms like Facebook & Twitter, etc. intimidating? Why not start a WordPress blog: it’s easy! Click the link to read the post. There are plenty of different templates to choose from, and if you have something to promote, there’s nothing to stop you; for example, I use my blog to promote the biography of my grand uncle, Wilfred Risdon: Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles, which can be bought direct from my own website (follow the link, and don’t be put off by any browser warnings: the site is perfectly safe—it just means I haven’t converted it to https yet, but it’s coming soon 🙂 ), but I also like to share reviews of books I’ve read, and other things related to books & publishing, so it’s not just a hard sell. Even if you only post now & again, it’s rewarding being able to share your thoughts with other people; check out the blogs I follow, from the links on the right, as well: there are some lovely, friendly people out there. As they say on The Prisoner [one for the teenagers!]: Be seeing you!

Book Reviews

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Anthology #2

The Electric Dwarf, by Tim Vine

Confusingly, this is not the Tim Vine many of us know & love from his standup routines, crackling with clever one-liners, but a composer, born in Jersey, C.I., and it appears to be his only sally into the world of fiction, to date. I would like to say I enjoyed reading it [twice, in fact: thanks, Swiss cheese memory!], and it is described [uncredited] on the back cover as “A ‘Withnail’ for the twenty first century”; I freely confess that I haven’t read the source material for that fine film, so I am not able to make a comparison, but this book is a ragbag collection of disparate characters, whose exploits might have been amusing, were it not for the spelling mistakes & odd constructions in the text, which might or might not have been knowing, for effect: I couldn’t decide. This is generally guaranteed to prejudice my opinion negatively. The paperback I read was published in 2019 by Salt Publishing, Norfolk, ISBN 978-1-7846-3172-7.

Burial of Ghosts, by Ann Cleeves

The only output of Ann Cleeves I have read hitherto has featured either the Vera or the Jimmy Perez [Shetland] characters, so I wasn’t sure what to expect with this story. Overall, it is a slower paced narrative than those to be found in either of the other ones, and I have to confess that I was on tenterhooks for most of it, wondering when the inevitable jeopardy was going to occur. I won’t spoil the story by enlarging on that, but suffice to say that any perceived lack of jeopardy doesn’t detract from the narrative’s construction. It is narrated by the protagonist, a young woman who was abandoned at birth, so she has led something of a rootless life so far, including some psychotic episodes & behaviour which was either borderline or actually criminal. After a very brief fling in Morocco with a married man, who happens to be dying at the time, she is tasked after his subsequent death with finding his son, who was apparently not known to the man’s wife, as he was the product of a much earlier liaison. The author’s cogent writing style is always enjoyable to read, so I can happily recommend this standalone story. The paperback I read was published in 2013 [2003] by Pan Books, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, ISBN 978-1-4472-4130-0.

Beyond Recall, by Gerald Seymour

With a distinguished background in journalism, covering armed conflict & terrorism across the globe, as well as Northern Ireland, he is well qualified to be able to write the many novels he has to date about members of the armed services, the intelligence services, and the theatres in which they work. This story is written, in large part, in a breathy, no-personal-pronoun style, to convey an inner monologue, which is often rushed as a result of stressful situations; it is effective, but can become somewhat irritating, if used too much. This story is about redemption, the protagonist being a retired corporal from a British special reconnaissance unit who, against his better judgment, given his mental breakdown before demob, is persuaded into one last mission, to identify a Russian officer whom, a few years back, he observed as an adviser to a unit of the Iranian army operating in Syria, and which carried out an atrocity, from which a young woman was the only survivor. The disparate strands of the narrative are skilfully woven together, and the tension is slowly, but cleverly built. The mission has no right to succeed, given the vicissitudes it suffers, but the dénouement is almost plausible, and I will leave it to the reader to decide that. The paperback I read was published in 2020, by Hodder & Stoughton, London, ISBN 978-1-5293-8600-4.

Your Inner Hedgehog, by Alexander McCall Smith

This is the third book in this series; the von Igelfeld Entertainments; and its protagonist is Professor Dr Dr [no mistake] Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, nicely lampooning German fastidiousness, and displaying a decent understanding of the language—Igel is the German word for hedgehog, hence the title, and in the text, the author explains that the character’s name means from [or of] hedgehog field, and its derivation: “Family tradition has it that they once lived in close proximity to a field renowned for its hedgehogs, but where this field was, and even if it ever existed, is far from clear.” Igelfeld is a professor at the modern-day Regensburg Institute of Romance Philology, and the story concerns the rather parochial activities of this department, and its denizens who, like most academics, it would seem, are self-centred and primarily concerned with their own advancement and the avoidance of any personal slights, whether explicit or implicit, rather than providing a decent education for the students. The humour is consistent with the author’s somewhat whimsical style, and it is erudite [in spades], with the de rigeur latin quotations; some familiar, but not all; but I can’t, personally, go as far as describing it, as does the back-cover synopsis, as “hilarious”: “entertaining” yes, just about, but in a light-hearted & undemanding way. That said, I regularly keep my eyes open for other books by him. The slim paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021, Little, Brown] by Abacus, an imprint of Little, Brown, London, ISBN 978-0-3491-4451-1.

Book Review

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Containment, by Vanda Symon

It is a refreshing change to read a thriller set in Britain’s alter ego, New Zealand, and it would be nice to be able to visualise, as we in the northern hemisphere slide into the dark & cold days of winter, the lazy, hazy days of an antipodean summer, but unfortunately, this story is set in winter, but that is, realistically, only a very minor reservation. The author has only written two other books in this series featuring her female protagonist, Detective Constable Sam [Samantha] Shephard, but they have been nominated for awards, and Symon is also a radio host and a board member of the New Zealand Society of Authors. The stories are set in & around the southern city of Dunedin; described by no less a commentator as Ian Rankin as “[t]he Edinburgh of the south”, and he should know!

The NZ police rank system is slightly different, in that there are no detective sergeants: a DC, such as Shephard, starts as a Constable, then progresses to fully-fledged Detective, the next step on the promotion ladder being Detective Inspector, as in England. Not entirely unexpectedly, given that she is a woman in a profession where misogyny is still not eradicated, she has a bastard of a boss, so she is permanently looking over her shoulder, and being as careful as possible what she says in his possible earshot in the office. The story starts with a container ship running aground in the bay near her home, allowing some containers to wash up on the shore, and their contents to spill out, leading to an ugly outbreak of looting by the locals. Even though she is off-duty, Sam tries to prevent one young man making off with a large package, and is seriously assaulted for her trouble; luckily, another man comes to her assistance.

When she is back on duty—sooner than she wanted, but her boss insisted—she is tasked with following up on the grisly discovery of the body of a diver, who has been in the water for some days, so the body is in a very poor state. Before long, a connection is found between this death; soon established to be murder; and the looting of the container goods. Working with her colleague, they gradually discover the trail of events leading to the death of the submerged man, although much of the time, Sam has to avoid the DI knowing what she is doing, because he has very eccentric ideas about where her responsibilities lie. The murderer turns out to be uncomfortably close to home, but is eventually caught. This was an enjoyable story to read, and I would be happy to find another one by this author, because the writing style is conversational, without being too colloquial. The paperback I read was published in 2020 [2009, Penguin Books (NZ)] by Orienda Books, London, ISBN 978-1-9131-9319-5.

This will be the last ‘long form’ review I post for a while, so for the foreseeable future, forthcoming reviews will be ‘short form’: restricted to one paragraph, but posted in groups and with the ISBN link so that further details of the books can be searched for, if a purchase might be desired.

Book Review

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Unnatural Causes, by P.D. James

P.D. James, now deceased [2014], was one of the Doyennes of the thriller genre, surely in terms of her ubiquity on a par with Agatha Christie, if not as prolific; although twenty one fiction publications is no small achievement. That being the case, I thought it was time that I read & reviewed one of her stories; I have watched a few of the television dramatisations featuring the same actor in the lead rôle of Superintendent Adam Dalgliesh, although whether he began his fictional career in this elevated professional position remains to be seen. One departure from this book was that the TV version drove an E-type Jaguar, so very redolent of the 1960s in which these stories are set, whereas here, Dalgliesh drives a Cooper Bristol, which according to an internet image search, has taken many different forms: some single seat racing cars, but also 2-seater touring versions, so it is most likely that Dalgliesh’s would have been one of those.

Our protagonist begins the story by hoping to enjoy a well-deserved holiday, after a very demanding case in London, where he is based, staying with his maiden aunt Jane on the Suffolk coast. Needless to say, a death is discovered within hours of his arrival; it is not immediately obvious that the man has been murdered, but this assessment is complicated by the fact that both his hands had been removed post mortem. This is bad enough in itself, but this exact scenario, where the victim in placed into a small rowing boat and sent out into the bay below the village where Dalgliesh is staying, and his aunt lives, was suggested to the victim, who was an author of murder fiction, by a local woman, who has somewhat exaggerated expectations of authorship herself, normally confining herself to more romantic subjects. This doesn’t automatically make her a suspect, but it is uncomfortably coincidental. Of course, there are other residents of the small village who could also have had reasons to want to kill the victim, so Dalgliesh can use his historical local knowledge to assist the Inspector from the local force, who is in charge of the investigation: Dalgliesh is well aware of the limits of his influence here.

Some of the scenes in which possible suspects are questioned are quite theatrical in their nature, which is not necessarily a bad thing, and the prose style does read as somewhat dated, but it is predominantly correct, which is quite refreshing, in today’s world of slipping literary standards. It is not entirely surprising that the culprit turns out to be someone who could have too easily been discounted, but the way in which the murder is constructed & executed is quite inventive; Dalgliesh unmasks the killer, of course! After that, he is possibly quite relieved to be going back to work. The paperback I read was published in 2019 [1967] by Faber & Faber Limited, London [F&F], ISBN 978-0-5713-5079-7.

Book review

Vengeance, by R.C.Bridgestock

In case you should not already be aware [and I wasn’t, hitherto], the author is not one person with 2 initials, but an amalgam of 2 people: Robert [Bob] and Carol Bridgestock. Both have extensive knowledge of police work: Carol was a civilian supervisor, and Bob retired with the rank of Detective Superintendent, so between them, they have nearly 50 years of police experience; as well as the current principal, Detective Inspector Charley Mann [a sly joke, given that she is female?], for whom this is the fourth story, they have also created the “down-to-earth detective”, DI Jack Dylan, featuring in seven stories to date. The crime in this story, when it first occurs, is inexplicable, and shocking for the casualties & onlookers: after a wedding at a church in the real small West Yorkshire village of Slaithwaite [pronounced Slowit: that’s ow as in Ow! That hurt!], when the participants are being lined up for the obligatory photographs, a lone gunman bursts onto the scene and shoots the bride’s father dead; the best man is mortally wounded. Amazingly, two of the male guests have the presence of mind to challenge the gunman & give chase, overpowering him and giving him such a damn good thrashing that he no longer presents a viable threat, almost requiring hospital treatment himself.

Initially, this seems to be a motiveless killing, given that both victims are upstanding members of the community, but the fact that the gunman, a locally known itinerant drug addict, was carrying a large amount of cash on him, suggested that this could be a ‘hit’, but for what possible reason? Gradually, patient & persistent enquiries by DI Mann & her team establish the connections which suggest a possible motive. Family connections, as is often the case, provide the majority of clues, but there is also an organised crime element which is, sadly, never far from the surface in the modern world.

I wanted to give this a positive review, given that I have a very tangential connection to the authors, despite not knowing them personally, but I feel there is work still to be done here: they know the procedures and, presumably, the technicalities & hierarchies well enough, but I can’t help feeling that the prose style is that of an enthusiastic amateur—I still can’t decide whether calling the defence barrister in the case Mr Pompous is clever, or simply whimsical; without quoting examples [I can assure the reader, there are many], I lost count of the number of times my eyebrows raised upon reading something which just felt odd, or unusual, or even clumsy. That said, the plot was well thought out, and the perpetrator was not immediately obvious, once the reason for the murders was revealed. The paperback I read was published in 2022 by Canelo, London, ISBN 978-1-8043-6056-9.

Book Review

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The Talented Mr Varg, by Alexander McCall Smith

I can’t remember if the cover of the previous Varg story I’ve reviewed, The Man with the Silver Saab, showed the author’s given name with a diaeresis over the first A, as it is on this one, but I have eschewed using it here, because it looks superfluous to me, and something of a self-indulgence: perhaps it makes Smith feel more exotic—especially given the prosaic nature of his family name. That aside, I remember enjoying the previous book, so I was looking forward to reading this one and, thankfully, I wasn’t disappointed. That said, notwithstanding that this latest story continues with the same characters as the previous one [a perusal of my aforementioned review would be beneficial here], there is one slightly odd element: in the previous story, Varg strikes up an amorous relationship with the temporary receptionist employed by his dog’s vet, but here, there is no mention of this when Martin, the deaf, lip-reading dog, is taken for a routine visit to monitor his depression & serotonin levels [half-way through the story] so, given that many readers do enjoy following books’ protagonists’ progress in succeeding stories, we are left in the dark as to whether Varg’s previous attachment was successful, or not—we have to assume not, unfortunately, as there is no mention here of a love interest.

There are two main story threads here and, as previously, they are dealt with in a slow, laid-back way by Varg: he’s much too thoughtful & considerate to go blundering in aggressively, as some other detectives might—I can’t speak for other fictional Swedish detectives, of course. In addition, one element from the earlier story which does overlap here is Varg’s suppressed infatuation with his colleague, Anna; this is thrown into some confusion when she confides in him that she suspects her husband of having an affair. Naturally, Varg is conflicted: he would love this to mean that Anna’s marriage can be terminated, and he could confess his true feelings; this also makes him feel guilty, for his selfishness, and he is ambivalent about whether he could condone his complicity in Anna’s subsequent unhappiness, until she accepted him: but would she?

The ongoing cases are the possible blackmailing of a university lecturer, and the possibility of a scam involving wolf-like domestic dogs being sold abroad purporting to be real wolves. As before, Varg includes his uniform colleague Blomquist in these investigations, and Varg suffers the same mixture of emotions about working with this man who can be tedious & irritating, but also has surprising & unexpected insights. Varg also has to work hard not to alienate his neighbour, Mrs Högfors, who is very accommodating with her care for Martin, but she has a pathological dislike of Russians, and she is not immediately dismissive of the political views of Varg’s brother, who is leader of the rather Pratchett-like Moderate Extremists; surely an oxymoron? That’s Smith’s little joke, of course.

These stories are always, for me, a pleasant meander without too much jeopardy, whilst still dealing with real-world issues, albeit in a tongue in cheek way. There are occasional allusions to peculiarly Swedish nastiness, but I enjoy not having to confront them continually in these books. As before, I am happy to recommend this one, and I would be pleased to find the third book, albeit the first of the trilogy [so far], naming the locus of Varg’s professional work: The Department of Sensitive Crimes. The paperback I read was published in 2021 [2020] by Abacus [Little, Brown], ISBN 978-0-3491-4408-5.

Book Review

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The Christie Affair, by Nina de Gramont

This author is American, and is a newcomer to speculation about the Agatha Christie ‘disappearance’ mythology: it “began in 2015 when she first learned about the famous author’s eleven-day disappearance. Christie’s refusal to ever speak about this episode particularly intrigued Nina, who loves the fact that someone who unravelled mysteries for a living managed to keep her own intact. The Christie Affair is her fourth novel.” I’m not sure if saying Christie “unravelled mysteries” is entirely accurate, because since she created them in the first place, and required them to be plausible, they wouldn’t have required unravelling by her, would they? That could safely be left to her readers. It’s possible that the author didn’t write her own bio, of course. This story is loosely based upon the facts as we know them, according to Christie’s Wikipedia page; some names have been changed, for obvious reasons; but this narrative falls into the ‘what if’ category, rather than a parallel universe scenario: the author describes it as “an imaginative history of sorts”.

As the narrative progressed, I was wondering why so much space was being given over to the backstory of the narrator, Nan O’Dea, who is this story’s substitute for Archie Christie’s real mistress, Nancy Neele, but the reason for that eventually became clear, and that is the subtext of this narrative: forced adoption of babies by the Catholic church in Ireland. I can’t reveal the reason for that, because the plot revolves around it, but it is a major element of this story. In fact, very little more of the plot can be revealed, but the major aspects of it conform to the real story, whereby Agatha Christie left her home in Sunningdale after a disagreement with her husband, in early December 1926, and after eleven days she was located at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate; although a different name for the hotel is used in the story. The period atmosphere is quite nicely realised so, apart from a few unfortunate Americanisms, which is understandable, given the author’s nationality, the story is a pleasant, undemanding read, even is some of the events do seem a touch implausible: given that this is fiction, I suppose that is forgivable.

It is difficult to speculate as to this book’s target readership, but Christie connoisseurs might enjoy it; as a thriller, it is very lightweight; it probably falls more comfortably into the romantic fiction category; but as stated above, it is undemanding, so it should be possible for different categories of reader to enjoy it. The paperback I read was published in 2022 by Pan Books [Mantle], an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, ISBN 978-1-5290-5419-4.