Book Reviews


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Anthology #7

Three Debts Paid, by Anne Perry

This is a decent enough story, but in my humble opinion, the author takes an excruciatingly long time to reach the dénouement, sending two of the main characters round in unnecessary circles, and asking the same questions more than once, both of themselves, and others whom they need to or want to question. There are two main threads happening: the first, a series of brutal & violent murders, in which the victims are stabbed & slashed, then an index finger segment removed post mortem; apart from the latter detail, the only other common aspect is that they all occur in pouring rain on the streets of London in the February of 1912. The second is a legal case of plagiarism, which is complicated by a charge of assault against the defendant. The main characters all know each other: Inspector Ian Frobisher is investigating the murders, and he was at Cambridge with Daniel Pitt, the barrister who is recommended by Frobisher to the defendant, Professor Nicholas Wolford, who taught Pitt, whose father just happens to be head of Special Branch. There is also a potential love interest, between Daniel and Miriam fford Croft, who has recently qualified as a pathologist, but she had to do this in Amsterdam, as the facility was not available in Britain; she also happens to be somewhat older than Daniel. The murderer is not too difficult to identify, but this takes around 300 pages! The court case near the end is rather messily terminated, and I didn’t think clients were able to instruct barristers directly, as is the case here. The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021] by HEADLINE PUBLISHING GROUP, London, ISBN 978-1-4722-7527-1.

This is the Night They Come for You, by Robert Goddard

At first, I wasn’t sure if I was going to enjoy this story, but it didn’t take me long to decide that I definitely would! Also, the author’s name seems familiar, but if I have read another of his books, I can’t find a review for it; he has written twenty-nine other books, according to the flyleaf of this one. The story revolves around the politics of Algeria, a country about which I know very little; there are also associated threads in England & France. It is set in the present day, and Covid has left its mark on Algiers, but lurking in the background, there is the spectre of the revolutions and tragic bloodshed which have riven the country since the War of Independence, whose true horror was exemplified in the massacre of Algerian protestors by the Paris police on the night of 17 October 1961. An Algiers police superintendent is charged with bringing a high-level embezzler to justice, and he is obliged to work with a rare female security service operative. A French woman has been offered a written confession made by her English father, who ran a bookshop in Algiers, before he was murdered, apparently by moslem extremists. An English man is also interested in the Algerian embezzler, because he is convinced that the latter murdered his sister, who was the bookshop owner’s girlfriend in Paris. The threads are very cleverly woven together, and they build to a dramatic climax, so I can recommend this book. The paperback I read was published in 2022 by Penguin [Bantam Press], London, ISBN 978-0-5521-7847-1.

Until the Last of Me, by Sylvain Neuvel

This author, as his name suggests, has French ancestry, but is a native of Québec. The book being reviewed is [again!] the second of a prospective trilogy, classified under the title of Take them to the Stars, and it is a type of alternative history science fiction; it is also, for me anyway, an allegory of the seemingly eternal, sadly, struggle of the female gender to overcome the at best dismissal, and at worst outright violence of the patriarchy. This should not spoil the plot, but the theme is only barely disguised. The plot is that a race of humanoid extraterrestrials, known as Kibsu, have lived among us for 3000 years, and for only vaguely explained reasons have “shaped Earth’s history to push humanity to the stars”, by using their skill with mathematics & astronomy to assist our technological development. Somewhat implausibly, they are all female, only using indigenous males for procreation; to complicate matters, however, the women are hunted, and regularly eliminated [but not enough for the race to die out completely] by the Tracker, a lineage of males, whose purpose seems to be simply to prevent the Kibsu from achieving their goal. The dénouement of this story is climactic, but not sufficiently to prevent the plausibility of a conclusionary sequel; I did enjoy it in the end, but it took a while before I was sure. The hardback I read was published in 2022, by Michael Joseph [Tom Doherty Associates], ISBN 978-0-2414-4514-3.

The Locked Room, by Elly Griffiths

It is now February 2020, and Covid is starting to bite; although, not as hard as it would, as we now know with hindsight. Dr. Ruth Galloway, the head of the Archaeology Department at the University of North Norfolk, is enjoying some quality time with her illicit, and only barely concealed lover, Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson, because his wife, Michelle, is isolating in Blackpool with their son and Harry’s mother. Harry and his team are investigating a series of apparent suicides of elderly people, but they are having to operate a skeleton staff in the office because of safety requirements. Ruth has just cleared her recently deceased mother’s house in London, and discovered a photograph which shows her cottage taken before she moved in, with the caption “Dawn, 1963” on the back; meanwhile, she has a new neighbour, a nurse by the name of Zoe, but she seems strangely familiar… Two students at the university go missing, then Ruth’s neighbour also does. There is also a significant scare [including for regular readers of this series] when one of the least likely main characters is struck down by Covid. At the end of the book [but not the end of the series: the next instalment is previewed here] Ruth has two very significant decisions to make: both of which have been forced upon her, and neither of which she is enthusiastic about having to make. Another very enjoyable instalment! The paperback I read was published in 2022 by Quercus Editions Ltd., London, ISBN 978-1-5294-0967-3.

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.

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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.

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.

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Tomorrow, by Damian Dibben

This is a book narrated, unusually [but probably not uniquely], by a dog: specifically, the eponymous dog of the book’s title. It might seem like an unusual name for a dog, but it is very significant for the dog’s owner, Valentyne, and the book’s premise is depicted quite clearly on its cover, with a handsome & intelligent looking dog lower centre, and surrounded by images suggesting his & his owner’s travels, and a pocket watch to signify the passage of time: a lot of it, in fact, and this is also suggested by a broad ribbon which crisscrosses the cover from top to bottom, whose colour progresses from pale at the top, to dark at the bottom. Valentyne is immortal; so is Tomorrow; but they are no super-heroes: Valentyne discovered a method whereby a fluid carefully & painstakingly distilled from a rare mineral could be injected into a specific place in the body, and repeated several times, until a living stone grows to cease the ageing process, so he bestowed this gift upon his beloved companion, as well as himself. This being the case, they have lived several lives [Tomorrow arguably many more], Valentine’s including physician, philosopher & soldier.

Valentyne is imbued, perhaps as a result of his immortality [which can only be terminated similarly to the premise of the Highlander stories, by hanging or decapitation], with a seemingly insatiable wanderlust, which takes him from his home, of which he never speaks to Tomorrow, to Venice, London, and Denmark: specifically, Elsinore Palace, in 1602, by which time he is already over a hundred years old. Unfortunately, he has a nemesis whose name, we learn, is Vilder, and the peripatetic pair seem to be forever trying to stay at least one step ahead of him, for reasons which are not, initially, specified; although, when they do happen to meet, early in the narrative, Tomorrow cannot help but feel the magnetic power of the man. It might seem strange for a dog to be so apparently eloquent, but that is a plot device which must be accepted with a suspension of disbelief; his conversations with other dogs are helpfully translated for us; although I am of the opinion that the occasional grammatical errors which crop up are human, not inserted deliberately to make the dog seem less than intelligent.

Inevitably, both man & dog have romantic relationships which are inherently doomed, because of the disparity in their respective species’ lifespans, so this is a major element of pathos in the narrative, and both Valentyne & Tomorrow have to learn to accommodate this inevitability; of the two, Tomorrow seems to be the more philosophical, although the death of his one love does affect him deeply, and he also mourns the loss of a true friend, acquired against his better judgment at the time. Despite Valentyne’s constant avoidance of Vilder, or perhaps because of the need for it, Valentyne takes on a mission in life, to be a peripatetic battlefield physician, following military adventures over a wide geographical area, with no obvious partisan loyalties save the relieving of suffering, for which his apparently magical elixir, which he calls jhyr, is occasionally but sparingly put to use. Unsurprisingly, after Valentyne goes missing in Venice, and Tomorrow waits for him for over one hundred years, there is a confrontation & a reckoning between Valentyne & Vilder; before this, Tomorrow, with his travelling companion, Sporco, is abducted by Vilder, and he learns that Valentyne was imprisoned in the same building: it had once been a sumptuous mansion, but it was now a prison by any other name.

I make no secret of the fact that I generally enjoy stories which use the concept of time as their theme; this is only time travel inasmuch as the direction is exclusively forwards, but it does allow the protagonists to experience different periods, with their individual fashions, mores, and personalities, and there is also the slightly furtive frisson to be enjoyed from being aware that the protagonists know something that their contemporaries don’t, provided they are discreet, which these are, of necessity; apart from one confession to an empathetic clergyman in the Carpathian mountains which, luckily, doesn’t put Valentyne in any additional jeopardy. The dénouement is not entirely unexpected, and its message of forgiveness is worthy; whether it is plausible depends upon one’s view of human nature. This book appears to be a one-off, but the author has written another book, which was set for publication in 2020, so it should be available now; that one is set in Renaissance Venice [so he seems to have a penchant for this city, as it features heavily in Tomorrow], and is about how far artists were prepared to go to discover new colours [when they weren’t available in millions, simply by using the correct combination of pixellated pigments]: “Think Perfume, for pigment.”  The paperback I read was published in 2019 [2018, Michael Joseph], by Penguin Books, part of the Penguin Random House group of companies, ISBN 978-1-4059-2578-5.

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The Vinyl Detective: Victory Disc, by Andrew Cartmel

This clever story is the third in the Vinyl Detective series; there is a fourth book, Flip Back, described at the time of publishing of this book as being scheduled for May 2019, and I am presuming it is part of the same series, given that each book has a title which is associated with vinyl records. The author, clearly—if his knowledge of the subjects, on display in this book—is a jazz & HiFi enthusiast, and as well as being a novelist, he is also a screenwriter [Midsomer Murders, Torchwood], script editor [Doctor Who], playwright and comic/graphic novel writer, and has toured as a standup comedian: so, very versatile, and his sense of humour comes across in this story, in an understated way. There are brief mentions of a previous adventure, in which the principal character, who narrates but whose name is not revealed in the narrative, and is known by his sobriquet of The Vinyl Detective, was in some danger, but he obviously survived to be involved in this story. The other main characters, who all live in London, are the narrator’s girlfriend Nevada, and their friends, Jordon [aka Tinkler], a fellow audiophile, and the woman he loves—“or at least lusted after”—Agatha DuBois-Kanes, known as Clean Head, because her head is shaved; plus two cats, Turquoise [aka Turk], and Fanny.

At the start of the story, Tinkler has bought a very large speaker cabinet; an exponential horn-loaded loudspeaker, to be specific, for his HiFi: unfortunately, he knew he would be away in France on holiday when it should be delivered, so he asked Clean Head to tell the Vinyl Detective & Nevada that he had arranged to have it delivered to them, somewhat accidentally-on-purpose neglecting to tell his amoureuse that said speaker was a “black behemoth”, taller than an upright piano, and deeper. While searching inside it for the necessary cables, which appeared to have originally been taped to the lip of the cabinet’s internal opening, they discover a very old shellac 78 rpm record, and this sets off a whole train of events involving survivors of the wartime Flare Path Orchestra, the British version of Glenn Miller’s Army Air Force Band, and the daughter of the band’s leader, Colonel ‘Lucky’ Lucian Honeyland; all the other members of that illustrious [but fictitious] band were in the Air Force, but Lucky was a flier, and a squadron commander, no less. Miss Honeyland commissions the Vinyl Detective and Nevada to find as many other extant records by the Flare Path Orchestra as they can, and in addition to the discs, she is more than happy to pay generously for anecdotes from surviving members as well, so the Vinyl Detective is very happy to help.

Since neither the narrator nor Nevada owns a car, they are accompanied by one or both of the other two of their friends; either in Tinkler’s Volvo, or Clean Head’s taxi; and during the research they variously undertake, they encounter a nubile young 18-year old woman, Opal Gadon, and a ferret-faced local history researcher, who is knowledgable about a tragic wartime murder case in Kent. Also: what is the story behind a psychedelically painted ‘hippie’ van, which seems to mysteriously follow them around? Incrementally, they discover surviving members of the Flare Path Orchestra, and a few more invaluable 78 records, but they also uncover another group which has an interest in the activities & politics of Lucky Honeyland which portrays him as a rather different character; especially in view of the popular and highly lucrative children’s books which he wrote: that being the case, where does this new evidence leave his daughter? Does this have any connection with the brutal wartime murder? This is quite a tangled tale, but as a result of the team’s investigations, the true story is revealed, and the dénouement is rather poignant: at least one person’s quest is resolved successfully, however. This is easy reading, and not unduly demanding, but none the less enjoyable for that, so I shall keep my eyes open for other entries in this series. The paperback I read was published in 2018 by Titan Books, London, ISBN 978-1-7832-9771-1.

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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State of Terror, by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny

The fact that Mrs Clinton had been assisted by an established thriller writer for this story didn’t surprise me; I already knew of the former from her recently terminated political career, and I thought it might be interesting to discover what sort of a job she could do with a political thriller—politics at a high level being her primary area of expertise—having recently read a ‘what if?’ version of her life, reviewed here, but also without being aware of any of her other fiction writing, such as it might be: she has, according to the book’s flyleaf, written seven other books, including one with her daughter Chelsea, but from the titles, it seems most likely that they are all non-fiction [I could confirm that on t’internet, but, ya know…..], so it is probably a sensible guess that she provided the political ‘dope’, and Penny wrote it up. The latter’s name was vaguely familiar, but I soon realised that I had already read one of her books, albeit eighteen months ago [yay, memory!] and reviewed it here, A Great Reckoning.

It is jumping forward somewhat to reveal this, but I was quite gratified to discover that Penny’s primary protagonist in the aforementioned story also appears here, albeit late in the story and in a minor rôle, but as to what his involvement is, the Book Reviewer’s Code of Ethics absolutely forbids me to reveal it, so I won’t. The real identities of two of the principal characters are, to me anyway, immediately transparent: Secretary of State Ellen Adams is Clinton—having undertaken that function herself, so she should, by all rights, know what she’s talking [sic] about—and former President Eric Dunn [the story being written in 2020] is clearly Donald Trump, whose fictional character features highly in the story, although not as a main ‘player’. Adams’s personality is modelled on a former colleague in Congress, and the former’s best friend & advisor is modelled on her own best friend from school days, so they are well qualified to be realistic; Clinton also, graciously, credits her husband, “a great reader and writer [who knew? Not I] of thrillers, for his constant support and useful suggestions, as always”.

Dunn has been defeated in his reëlection attempt, and “After the past four years of watching the country she loved flail itself almost to death”, a fellow [of Adams] Democrat,  Douglas Williams, has been installed as President; there’s one major problem with that, and her current position in the new administration: “It had come as a huge shock when [Williams] had chosen a political foe, a woman who’d used her vast resources to support his rival for the party nomination … It was an even greater shock when Ellen Adams had turned her media empire over to her grown daughter and accepted the post.” So: she was never going to get an easy ride—self-inflicted? arguably—and her first foray into the literal & metaphorical world of international power-brokering, in South Korea, had been at best a failure, and could easily have been interpreted by those so disposed to do so as a fiasco. Not an auspicious start; so when a bus bomb explodes without any warning during the morning rush-hour in London, Adams suspects that she is going to be tested to the extreme, and that does, indeed, prove to be the case. What follows is a tense whirlwind of globetrotting negotiations, all the while trying to locate a psychopathically murderous arms dealer and prevent him carrying out his heinous threat, when the US government has identified it.

In politics, as in the world of espionage, one of the biggest problems is knowing whom to trust, and in Ellen Adams’s world, the dangers associated with making a mistake are gut-wrenchingly great, especially when highly-placed actors [in the life-rôle sense] remain from the previous administration, and this proves to be very testing & difficult for both Adams and Williams, especially given their previous antipathy, which they have no alternative but to work through, if they are going to thwart the jeopardy. The tension racks up very nicely during the narrative; Adams’s son, his girlfriend, and Adams’s daughter, Katherine, the media mogul, are closely involved, and there is even a literal countdown for a final escalation so, notwithstanding one’s attitude toward America’s militarism & arrogant, Christianity-dominated assumption of global moral advocate status, this is an excellent, albeit simultaneously worrying [if one takes the narrative too literally] thriller for our times. Perhaps it should have ended with the classic [British television, paraphrased] Crimewatch advice: “It’s alright: don’t have nightmares!” The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021, Macmillan] by Pan Books, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, ISBN 978-1-5290-7973-9.

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.