Archive for British

Andrew Michael Hurley: The Loney

One of the things that make England such a haunted place is its sheer antiquity. The great ghost story writers of that country are often possessed by the fear that the spirits of the old, pre-Christian ways will manifest themselves darkly in our bright modern world. Such is the slowly dawning terror of Andrew Michael Hurley’s magnificent new chiller The Loney:

I often thought there was too much time there. That the place was sick with it. Haunted by it. Time didn’t leak away as it should. There was nowhere for it to go and no modernity to hurry it along. It collected as the black water did on the marshes and remained and stagnated in the same way.

“There” in this case is the Loney, a wild and barely habited stretch of coastline in Lancashire where the narrator, his family, his parish priest and a few other members of the congregation would travel at Easter.

It was our week of penitence and prayer in which we would make our confessions, visit Saint Anne’s shrine, and look for God in the emerging springtime, that, when it came, was hardly a spring at all; nothing so vibrant and effusive. It was more the soggy afterbirth of winter.

The novel begins with the narrator (we never learn his real first name) hearing the news of a landslide in the area that caused an old house to slide down the cliff, and more disturbingly, of the baby’s skeleton found in the wreckage. Thus the story begins, revolving around a single still supernatural point, switching from the past history leading up to it and the present moment where it still reverberates.

It’s a hypnotic, richly realized work, with many strong ingredients. The narrator’s hyper-religious mother, obsessed with finding a miraculous cure for his mute older brother, is the propulsive force that pushes them into a return to the Loney, dragging along the new parish priest who has replaced the longstanding old one who died under mysterious circumstances. As in any good Gothic, the bleak and ancient landscape is itself a character, one with a dark tide that pulls toward oblivion as strongly as the stormy waves on the beach. The locals are sullen and threatening, their traditional customs strange and unsettling, and the weather awful as the modern world seems more and more distant.

The book has a slow and powerful sweep powered by the finely fashioned prose, creeping evermore creepily, much more like the classic Victorian and Edwardian writers Sheridan Le Fanu, Wilkie Collins or M. R. James than modern shocksters like Stephen King. The denouement is also very old school, with no exploding heads or rubber monsters, but a much more sinister sense of doom and discomfort, which in the end is far more effective.

It’s hard to categorize “The Loney,” to pigeonhole it as a Gothic, Ghost or Horror story, because it’s all that and more. What’s easy to say is that it’s a remarkable debut, a real dream of a nightmare that will haunt long after the last page. (Jamie)

Elly Griffiths: The Chalk Pit

This is a wonderful outing from Elly Griffiths. I enjoyed the last one, The Woman in Blue, very much, but my daughter pointed out after she read it that it was “transitional.” I asked her exactly what did that mean, and she explained the characters were all in transition, neither here nor there for that particular installment. Thinking about it, I agreed with her completely, and this one – where the characters seem to have found landing spots for the moment – feels like a stronger book.

In it, Ruth and Nelson have gone to their romantic corners – Nelson is back with his wife and Ruth is alone. Cathbad is settled (and regrettably, not much in evidence), Tim is gone, Cassandra and Clough are happy parents, and Nelson has a new boss. He thinks to himself “Yes, not content with giving him a tangled love life and a stressful working life, God has now delivered the greatest blow of all. Nelson has a woman boss.”

Nelson is no sexist, far from it, but Jo, his boss, is portrayed by Griffiths as a kind of eager combo hipster/new age hippie who tries to meet each employee on their own terms and fails miserably. Not since the great Ngaio Marsh has a writer been so deft at swiftly explicating a character to such great comic effect, though it’s more of a gentle drubbing than a sharply cruel one. This is the kind of thing, among others, that sets Griffiths’ novels apart – the sharp clear humor of her writing and world view shines through on every page.

Ruth, meanwhile, has been asked to consult on an underground site for a possible future restaurant where bones have been found. Archeologist Ruth is to determine whether they are old or new, which, if they were new, would halt any possible construction. These novels, set in Norwich in the UK, always include a swath of history as well as the local landscape. In this novel, with constant references to “going underground” and underground societies – there’s even a character named Bilbo – the local landscape, it becomes clear, is composed of chalk, and there are countless underground tunnels connecting much of the city.

Like another author I very much admire, Deborah Crombie, the whole situation created by Griffiths is so enjoyable that when crime eventually intrudes it’s almost jarring, but intrude it does, as homeless men are found stabbed, a homeless woman disappears, but it’s not until a housewife and mother of four goes missing that the investigation really heats up.

Griffiths is enough of a traditional mystery writer that she includes a red herring or two, but she’s newfangled enough that her characters are so indelible they seem absolutely real. Ruth Galloway is certainly one of the greater creations in mystery fiction in the last decade or so. Her human foibles coupled with her strength and intelligence, not to mention her status as a single mother, make her seem so “real” it would not be at all surprising to meet her in the flesh. What an achievement!

And so is this book, which ends with a breathtaking chase and capture that’s made more memorable by a few reveals about the characters as well as some tying up of personal loose ends for some of them. This is absolutely one of the best mystery series being written at the moment.

G.M. Malliet: Devil’s Breath

I can’t say how delighted I am that G.M. Malliet is continuing to write her Max Tudor mysteries. With actual British writers turning to the really dark and really scary, it’s American Malliet who has assumed the Golden Age mantel with this series. It’s pure joy to read one of these novels, start to finish.  The structure and format won’t be a surprise to any devotee of Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers, but the way the characters are turned into fully human beings makes them utterly contemporary.

In this outing, Max, along with being the vicar of Nether Monkslip, devoted husband to Awena and doting father to the fabulous Owen, has returned to his roots with the MI5 and has taken on an actual assignment. He receives the news that he’s replacing, and will be working with, a former paramour with some trepidation but that is instantly resolved when said former paramour turns out to be about nine months pregnant.

The case involves drug smuggling, and it’s suspected the smuggling could most easily take place on board a luxury yacht. On just such a yacht is a party of Hollywood types and upper crust hangers on, out on a pleasure trip, when one of them (a famous movie star now getting a bit long in the tooth) turns up dead. The two cases merge and Max takes on the job of not only looking into the drug smuggling, but into trying to discover more about the dead woman, Margot Trent, in hopes that will lead him and the police to her killer.

At his side, as usual, is the Shakespeare quoting DCI Cotton, but the book belongs to Max and the Hollywood contingent as, true Golden Age style, he interviews each possible suspect in turn. The book even comes with a guide to the cast of characters at the beginning, a la Agatha Christie. Mallet’s delicious turn of phrase as she indelibly portrays each character are one of the true joys of reading any of her books—she swiftly exposes each, warts and all, and then unexpectedly brings you on the side of the victim who throughout has been portrayed as selfish and vain but who somehow remains sort of likable.

That, to me, was the biggest turn of the plot, though the solution was suitably tricky with a dash of Golden Age coincidence thrown in for good measure. These books are satisfying in every particular, and it was a read I enjoyed more than I can say. I hope Max Tudor will not take as long to return as he did this time around.

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.