Archive for British

Deborah Crombie: Garden of Lamentations

I look forward to few novels more than I do those of Deborah Crombie, whose Gemma James/Duncan Kincaid books have become one of my favorite series. As the series has progressed and the working partners became marital ones, I also have become a fan of these characters who are good, decent human beings dealing with life as it comes at them. They are a family of five with all the chaos that entails and juggling family and work is not always easy. In this novel, Gemma and Duncan seem a bit estranged.

Originally, the two worked together, with Duncan outranking Gemma, but now they are equals in rank and they no longer work together. In this novel, as in the previous several, each one has their own case they are pursuing and the two don’t mix. Crombie, who obviously is a big fan of order and structure, is able to nimbly navigate this complex plotting structure with ease.

Gemma’s case concerns a nanny who was found dead in the private, shared garden behind the house where she lived and worked, so in this scenario, Crombie creates a locked room mystery of a sort as Gemma and her temporary boss, Boatman, who has requested Gemma as she has a tenuous personal connection to the victim. This story really captivated me as Crombie delves into the lifestyles and personalities of the families surrounding the garden area. For those not familiar either with London or the movie Notting Hill, the garden is a fenced, locked one, accessible only to the neighbors whose houses back up to it.

Duncan’s case is more complex and has threads tied to the past several books, and involves police corruption at the highest level. Duncan is mostly working in the dark as he tries to figure out why his old boss, Denis Childs, who had disappeared and reappeared, requesting a meeting, and who warns him to be careful has given him this warning. Duncan is worried and doesn’t share his worries with Gemma, thus straining their relationship, and when Childs is conked on the head and is in an induced coma, Duncan is really on his own.

He gets to work with his old mates, Melody and Doug, on the sly, as they use their various skill sets and connections to figure out what’s happening. In the last book, the story was set off by a bomb blast in St. Pancras station. Melody was a witness and it’s clear she is probably suffering from PTSD. A working knowledge of that novel (The Sound of Broken Glass) helps to navigate this one. The wrap-up of both cases is both satisfying and surprising.

Crombie is at all times a complex, intelligent writer, who uses her rich characters and settings and complex situations to create truly memorable novels. She weaves her stories back and forth through time in some cases (Duncan’s, here) and interweaves her different plot lines, integrating them with the character’s personal lives. This is the bravura work of a master of her craft.

Paula Hawkins: The Girl on the Train

girlonthetrainIt’s always puzzling to me why a particular book takes off for the stratosphere, and another, equally good, does not, but there’s no denying the popularity of Paula Hawkins’ debut, The Girl on the Train. While I’ve heard Hawkins say in an interview that no one ever thought of a character seeing a crime from a train before (see The 4:50 from Paddington, Agatha Christie, 1957), I have also seen an interview in the New York Times Book Review where she mentions a reverence for Ruth Rendell. There are also articles talking about this novel being responsible for the “re-birth”of domestic suspense, a trend that has always been with us, going back, again, to Agatha herself. All that made me unwilling and uninterested in reading it, but I put it on our book club ballot and the book club picked it, so here I am, having read the most popular novel published in the last few years.

And I won’t say it’s not a compelling read. Much like Gillian Flynn’s hit, Gone Girl, it’s hard to put down or look away from and unlike Gone Girl, I didn’t actually dislike every character in the book (just most of them). Hawkins’ creation of her central character, Rachel, a woman who is obviously suffering from the death of her marriage and loss of her beloved home, a home she can see from the train every day as she travels to work in downtown London. Rachel is apparently slightly overweight (making the casting of Emily Blunt as Rachel in the film somewhat unexplainable); has a drinking problem, brought to all-too vivid life; and an arrangement with a former friend to rent one of the rooms in her apartment which is turning out to be uncomfortable at best.

She comforts herself by observing the lives of a couple on her commuter route—a couple whose life she can see from her seat on the train, and she supplies them with a fantasy life that would be hard for anyone to live up to. When she sees the wife kissing another man one day and then when the woman subsequently disappears, she’s drawn toward the case like a moth to a flame and even finds herself being questioned by the police.

Hawkins uses a back and forth through time method of telling her story, so that Rachel’s whole story emerges in bits and pieces and the other players in the story become all too frighteningly intimate. While Rachel is somewhat of an unreliable narrator—she drinks to blackouts—she also seems, all along, to be a kind person, and you want to give her the benefit of the doubt. Like Flynn’s novel, Hawkins’ novel actually relies on very few characters but their stories are all told with a vivid intensity. There’s a twist (though I did figure out the ending), but all in all I felt Hawkins’ novel was of a piece with other recent British suspense novels. I actually felt one of the strongest pieces was her portrayal of an alcoholic, rather than the plot or characters which, except for Rachel, were pretty standard types.

However, if you enjoyed The Girl on the Train, you might try books by Ruth Ware, Sophie McKenzie, Belinda Bauer, Sophie Hannah and Collette McBeth, just to name a few. Sophie McKenzie in particular is well worth a look.

Jane Casey: After the Fire

After the FireJane Casey has developed into one of the more reliable police procedural writers around. This is a bravura effort from her, seven books into her series about Detective Maeve Kerrigan, the vagaries of her love life, and her fellow detective, the irascible Josh Derwent. Tackling a fire that breaks out in a housing project (or as the Brits call them, Housing Estates, a fancier term for the same thing), Casey highlights various people who live on the estate, couched mostly in heartbreaking terms. Things only get worse after the fire.

She also focuses on the ongoing stalker in Maeve’s life and the steps she’s taking to get rid of him. As it turns out, it’s not possible without a little help from her friends. However, the stalker story is the “B” story and the fire story is the “A” story as the detectives look at the lives of a single mother and her son; an unhappy old woman forced to move onto the estate; a cheating politician; a couple of sex slaves and a wild and complicated family of gypsies who seem to be up to no good and one of whose children has been injured in the fire.

That sounds like a lot to juggle, and in the hands of a lesser writer, it would be, but in Casey’s more than capable hands it’s smooth as silk, with the each story segment fitting smoothly into the next. The eventual interconnected whole is surprising and satisfying, though not without its element of heartbreak.

The stalker story – one I’ve been hoping Casey would resolve for a long time – is wrapped up in this novel and I think what may be up next are the unresolved feelings Kerrigan and Derwent probably have for one another. To an outsider, it’s clear; to the characters in the book, especially Maeve as she fights to maintain her dignity and reputation on the job, it’s less clear. I don’t see Casey leaving her characters in a happy ever after, however, so I think settling in to see how it plays out is the more realistic option.

While police novels of necessity compress events and make things more dramatic than they might be in real life, Casey as a storyteller has such a deft and capable narrative hand, you won’t want to put any of her books down. From the first to this more recent installment, all are excellent, well done reads.

Judith Flanders: A Bed of Scorpions

abedofscorpionsI loved Judith Flanders’ first Sam Clair novel, A Murder of Magpies, and I may have liked this one even more, as some of her plotting was clearer than it was in the first novel. In truth, though, that part didn’t matter so much to me. What I really love is the setting – Sam is a 40-something book editor in London – and in this novel she’s caught up by the apparent suicide of the business partner of one of her dear friends. The friend and his partner own(ed) a London art gallery specializing in a well known pop artist (Flanders creates an artist who would have been a contemporary of Lichtenstein and Warhol) and then she plunges the action full bore into the world of publishing and art and where the two sometimes collide.

Another death and a series of “accidents” make clear that something is afoot and that Sam, to the intense displeasure of her Scotland Yard boyfriend, is not only in danger but caught up in his case. And that’s not even the good part. The good part is the way Flanders brings Sam to full life and through a series of penetrating, sometimes snarky observations, she does the same for the publishing world. She’s insanely quotable.

This book also brings to life the obscure world of museum installers who also create the items sold in museum gift shops, the ones that go along with a big exhibit. (You probably have a Monet keychain or two in the bottom of your purse, so you know what I’m talking about). This book was a pure delight, start to finish, and the pacing in this one was much improved over the first novel. All in all a terrific, funny, light and intelligent read.

G.M. Malliet: The Haunted Season

TheHauntedSeasonThe fifth novel in G.M. Malliet’s charming and intelligent Max Tudor series is a delight. The book finds Max happily married to the lovely Awena, and they are the now doting parents of Owen. They seem to share child care almost effortlessly, with the exception of Max falling asleep in church during a sermon given by his new curate, Destiny. While Destiny is not in the novel for large chunks, she still plays a large part, as before heading to Nether Monkslip to report for duty, she overhears a seemingly incriminating conversation in the steam bath at her women’s club. Problem: every woman looks the same wrapped in a towel, and she has no idea who they are.

Malliet is an extremely skillful plotter and she holds Destiny’s information back until later in the novel, though it’s clear it has something to do with nefarious happenings in Nether Monkslip. The titled family inhabiting the manor house appears to be desperately unhappy – the head of the house has a new, young bride, and his two children fit only restlessly and unhappily into the family circle. The son, Peregrine, appears to be about to be “sent down” from Oxford (read: kicked out). The “Dowager” also lives in, and she’s a romance writer a la Barbara Cartland, down to the fluffy chiffon dresses and big hats.

Anyway when the lord of the manor is done away with, Max, as is often the case, is asked to step in as vicar (and former MI6 agent) and help the local constabulary with the ins and outs of the humans populating the mystery. Max, an excellent listener as well as being vicar, has ready access almost everywhere and being smart and perceptive is able to uncover a lot. As he unravels the layers of this dysfunctional family, he gets closer and closer to the truth.

Malliet’s storytelling style is nothing short of entertaining, and her prose is lovely. She also has a true gift with fictional names; in this novel the central family, the Baaden-Boomthistles, are a touch of genius. She’s very good at putting together a tricky plot and these novels are in every sense a riff on Agatha Christie’s village mystery format. It’s a great, timeless format and Malliet gently updates it by adding shades of psychological depth. This installment is one of the more charming in the series to date, as Malliet becomes more and more comfortable as a storyteller. These novels are a true pleasure, and if you enjoy a village mystery, don’t miss a single one.

Jane Casey: The Kill

TheKillAnother take on the British police novel comes from Jane Casey, whose love-life-clueless-work-life-competent Maeve Kerrigan is a fresh, memorable character. She’s young, she’s fighting tooth and nail to be taken seriously and treated equally, and she’s one of the few who gets along with her higher up, the prickly Josh Derwent.

Casey’s feminist take on the police novel is welcome and realistic – Maeve is mostly taken seriously by her boss but she’s treated in a very sexist way by Derwent, who nevertheless values her opinion and likes working with her. Higher up the chain female officers are threatened by her and Maeve handles her work life with aplomb. She’s made a pact with herself never to cry at work, no matter what happens: Josh tells her towards the end of the novel, “Don’t be that girl who cries at work.” It’s a perfect encapsulation of Maeve’s daily struggle to keep it together on the job, and reminded me of Holly Hunter’s solitary morning crying jag in the film “Broadcast News.”

While she’s perfected her no nonsense work persona, her romantic life with the appealing Rob never seems to run smoothly, often because of communication problems between the two of them. However, Maeve’s love life is back burner in this fast paced story that turns out to be about a series of cop killings across London. The nature of the crimes couldn’t be more topical: they appear to be related to the unlawful killing by police of an unarmed teenager and the general mood of the London public toward the police is distrustful.

Casey is nothing if not a gripping storyteller, however, all thematic concerns aside. The book opens with the shooting of an off duty officer in his car, and worse follows as Maeve and Derwent attempt to unravel a complex maze of motives which is helped by tracing the gun used through a London gun club. Unlike the United States, owning a gun in the U.K. is a very serious business and many types are outright illegal. Of course, it’s one of the illegal variety that Maeve and Josh are trying to track down.

As Maeve and Josh trace the roots of the crime to the upper echelons of both organized crime and the police, Casey also explicates the family life of the first shooting victim, a man with a damaged son, an angry wife, and a miserable teenage daughter. Casey’s matrix is a rich one, and her characters are never anything less than memorable, just like her stories. All of her books seem to flow effortlessly into the next one, and she teases the reader, at the end of the novel, of what might be next for Maeve. I can’t wait to find out.

Hannah Dennison: Deadly Desires at Honeychurch Hall

DeadlyDesiresThe second in a series featuring former TV personality Kat Stanford, this is a welcome addition to the always popular British village subgenre. The tone is “madcap,” in a good way. Kat is living with her mother in the carriage house of Honeychurch Hall; her mother has just informed her that her Uncle Alfred, recently released from prison, is about to join them.

Both women are also caught up in a village controversy: a high speed rail line is proposing cutting through the town, destroying buildings and historic sites (there’s a British Civil War battlefield smack in the middle of their countryside), and when they stumble across one of the train authorities in a walk through a field to find sloes for sloe gin fizzes, Kat is literally caught in the middle. She sees that the railway would destroy the town; on the other hand, its representative, Valentine Prince-Avery, is handsome and charming and he just wants to discuss “options.”

Dennison lightly balances several story strands: Kat’s mother, Iris, is actually the reclusive and wildly successful romance writer, Krystalle Storm; there’s the young wayward son of the Hall, Harry, who at seven, despises boarding school and keeps “escaping”; and there’s a new maid at the hall who appears to be channeling “Downton Abbey.” Throw in the Dowager Lady Edith, who prefers to ride sidesaddle, thank you very much, and the story mix is varied and entertaining.

There’s a death early on and another hinted at that comes much later in the story, but the atmosphere builds with the help of Uncle Alfred, who turns out to have the “sight” – he senses ghosts and knows when someone is in trouble. He’s also a dab hand with animals and finds a lost Jack Russell, Lady Edith’s mischievous Mr. Chips. Mr. Chips behaves very much like the wire fox terrier in “Bringing Up Baby”– he has a real love of digging and burying things he shouldn’t.

Populated with memorable characters, Dennison handily and believably creates a British village of a sort that exists not in the misty past but in the 21st century. Nothing is too terribly serious, however, except perhaps for Alfred’s execrable paint job of the carriage house living room. But as in any rollicking adventure story, all ends well, leaving the happy reader eager for more stories about Kat and her intrepid mother.

Anne Cleeland: Murder in Thrall

murderinthrallHow has this terrifically inventive series slipped under the radar? This was one of our breakout books at Christmas when we could hardly order copies fast enough, and when I was recently at Malice Domestic, we sold lots of copies and one woman even told me she’d come to the conference specifically to meet Ms. Cleeland. After feverishly reading this one in a day, I can absolutely see why (and I plan on reading the next two as quickly as possible).

This has one of the odder set ups I’ve ever encountered in a mystery novel. While on one level it’s a straight up, almost typical, police procedural – a Scotland Yard DCI (that’s Detective Inspector to you) takes a young DC (that’s Detective Constable, the lowest rank) under his wing. It’s reminiscent of Elizabeth George’s pairing of Lynley and Havers – Cleeland’s DCI, Acton, is titled, as is Lynley; the DC, Doyle, is a working class (like Havers) Irish girl trying to find her way. She’s trying to absorb as much knowledge as she can, and as the story opens, it’s clear that Acton and Doyle work well together.

Cleeland, like any accomplished novelist, presents her two main characters as two fully realized beings living a life we are joining in progress. The case we join them on concerns a murder at a racetrack, one where Doyle has let a suspect get the better of her (he locked her in a stall) and she’s now dealing with the wrath of Lord Acton.

Each chapter begins with a short paragraph or a few sentences from the point of view of someone who is watching Doyle very closely: you might almost say, stalking her. As the story progresses (not very far, this is not a spoiler) it’s clear the stalker is Acton. He declares his feelings to Doyle early on in the novel though the two of them have been working together for awhile.

Doyle’s special gift is an intuitive sense about people – she can tell when they are lying and when they are not – it makes her terrific at interviewing suspects. So while she’s stunned at Acton’s revelation, she senses he’s OK, a good guy. While this sounds squirmy, the way Cleeland tells her story, it actually isn’t, and the budding and peculiar romance between the two main characters takes the lead, relegating what is actually a complicated and well put together mystery story to the back of the stage.

The way the story is told is different and inventive, and Cleeland also has the necessary skills needed to write a good novel: her characters are well thought out, her story is good, her London setting is excellent. While I raced to finish the novel it was only partly to find out whodunit. It was mostly to see how this very odd relationship was going to play out.

I can’t recommend this highly enough, especially if you like English police novels; if you enjoy some romance with your story, you’ll like this as well. I’m delighted that we sent so many copies home with customers, many of whom have come back for the second book in the series. This is a great addition to the contemporary British mystery array, and if you’re a fan of Deborah Crombie or Elly Griffiths or Jane Casey, step right up.

Sharon Bolton: Little Black Lies

littleblackliesS.J. Bolton may have changed her name to the more agreeable and feminine “Sharon,” but make no mistake, her creepy intensity is undiluted. This novel is a stand-alone in the mode of her earlier novels – Sacrifice, Awakening and Blood Harvest – and boy does it get under your skin. If you aren’t big on an eerie, gothic storyline, give this one a pass. On the other hand if you enjoy a well written and unforgettable read, dive right in.

Set on the Falkland Islands (there’s a map in the front subtitled “Land of Sky and Sea,” a cheerfully ironic subtitle if ever there was one) about a decade after the well-remembered Falkland Island conflict of 1982. The conflict is still fresh for the islanders (who live with the threat of land mines in their sheep fields) and one of the main characters is a Falkland vet with PTSD. He’s not the main character, but he makes the timing relevant, though he’s not as obvious a plot device as that implies.

One of Bolton’s real gifts is creating troubled, memorable young women as her main characters – scarred veterinarian Clara of Awakening is especially unforgettable – and marine biologist Catrin joins their ranks. Catrin lives as a recluse after the accidental deaths of her two sons several years back. She’s an expert on sea mammals, especially whales, and her yard is decorated with a giant Orca skeleton. She’s governed by a simmering hatred of her former best friend, Rachel, who she blames for the deaths of her sons.

As the story opens, a young boy has disappeared and the whole island is out looking for him – and along with the disappearance of another young boy several months back, it’s looking like a sinister string of child deaths and disappearances, and while heartbreaking, it’s also bad for tourism, a staple of the Falklands, where cruise ships regularly stop with their loads of passengers.

Catrin joins the search for the boy, helped by Falkland vet Callum, who clearly still carries a torch for the now divorced and miserable Catrin. We’re not privy to the thoughts of Rachel until later in the book when a tragic turn in her household swivels the attention of the island her way. Both women live the life of outcasts, and a scene with beached whales early on makes Catrin’s descent into outcast hell even more dramatic. The scene with the whales is riveting, heartbreaking and hard to forget (or look away from, as you read), but it is not for the faint of heart, so be warned.

Foolishly, I thought I knew where Bolton was heading with her resolution and boy, was I wrong. She deftly shades the characters of Catrin, Callum and Rachel as well as delineating life on the Falklands – a fascinating bit of armchair travel – while keeping all the narrative threads of her disturbing story well in hand. This is definitely one of the reads of the year.

Elly Griffiths: The Ghost Fields

ghostfieldsAs far as I’m concerned, a new Elly Griffiths novel is major cause for rejoicing. Her sparkly, vivid series set on the coast of Norfolk and featuring archaeologist Ruth Galloway is always a delight. My daughter and I were also discussing how good Griffiths is at tricking the reader, in ways big and small, and seems to keep getting better as a writer. All of these things apply to her new novel which finds Ruth called in when a WWII plane is unearthed on the beach, with a grinning skeleton at the helm. She spots the bullet hole in his forehead straight away and we’re off to the races.

Griffiths is always an atmospheric writer, this novel is especially wind and rain lashed as the skeleton appears to share DNA with a local family, the Blackstocks of Blackstock Hall, a creepy, decrepit mansion straight out of a horror movie. The family is just about as creepy. Somehow you sense daughter in law Sally’s cheerful attempt to turn the whole shebang into a B & B isn’t going to take. In any case, news of the plane with it’s skeleton inside makes its way to the US (where in fact the US Army has done the DNA testing for the Norfolk police) and the TV crew familiar to readers from the last novel (The Outcast Dead) including dishy Frank turn up to make a documentary about the dead man “coming home.” The ghost fields of the title refer to the location where the plane was discovered, and where many of the WWII pilots met their deaths.

Ruth – always a bit clueless about affairs of the heart, even as she’s gifted in her chosen field – is unsettled by the arrival of TV host Frank. They’d almost had something going. This is intensely annoying to Nelson, the father of her daughter – but as he’s married to another woman there’s not much he can say about it. In any case all roads lead to the Blackstocks as a series of assaults and an especially grisly death seem to be linked to them by pesky DNA.

In typical fashion, much like Ruth herself, Griffiths seems to almost careen all over the map, plot wise, but there’s always method in her madness, and the cleverness of her story triumphs as always. The sturdiness of her recurring characters are also excellent – Ruth, Nelson, Judy, Cathbad et.al. are such real, human creations, complete with believable foibles, which is refreshing and welcome. With every new book, I can’t wait to revisit them. Enjoy The Ghost Fields – and like me, look forward to the next installment.