Archive for British – Page 2

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 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.

Colette McBeth: The Life I Left Behind and Sophie McKenzie: You Can Trust Me

As I read, I often mentally try to categorize, to fit what I’m reading into a mystery context, wondering about the predecessors of what I’m reading. When I first picked up Colette McBeth’s book, I was thinking Ruth Rendell; but then I started Sophie McKenzie’s book and it all fell into place. These women aren’t following Rendell, they’re following feminine suspense writers like Charlotte Armstrong, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Mignon G. Eberhart, Celia Fremlin, and even Mary Higgins Clark. They’re writing stand alone thrillers with a domestic twist. And they’ve brought them oh so creepily into the 21st century – these are genuinely scary reads, difficult to put down, and ultimately, all ends happily.

thelifeileftbehindIn McBeth’s The Life I Left Behind, the lovely Melody is a virtual prisoner in her (admittedly beautiful) home, engaged to the handsome, successful Sam, but she’s still traumatized by a brutal attack that left her for dead six years previously. When another woman is found murdered under eerily similar circumstances, Melody is finally spurred out of her lethargy, and her story becomes linked with the dead woman’s, Eve. Eve is a partial narrator, as is Melody, and the book goes back and forth between them.

As the book progresses, it’s clear Melody’s personality has completely changed – she was a busy career woman, living in the heart of London, enjoying a wild social life; she’s now a stay at home partner, busy decorating, planning her wedding, and cooking elaborate meals. All is ordered and planned online as she can’t bear to leave the house alone.

Making Melody’s jolt the greater, the man who was accused of her attack has just been released from prison – just in time to have killed Eve. As Melody looks into Eve’s death on her own, it becomes clear that Eve, a television producer, was busy working on clearing the man’s name and had made a breakthrough just before she was killed.

McBeth takes the reader deep into the minds of both women, and you are hearing the story shaded by their perceptions of events. As Melody gets access to Eve’s case notes, which are extensive, it really becomes difficult to stop reading as each segment of the narrative reveals something new.

While I thought I knew where the end of the book was heading I was surprised, and happily so, as this author had carefully laid the groundwork for her clever and memorable denouement. I won’t forget the characters or this story anytime soon.

youcantrustmeI then immediately picked up Sophie McKenzie’s You Can Trust Me as I’d read her first novel straight through on a train trip last summer (Close My Eyes is now available in paperback). The similarities to McBeth’s book became obvious: the central female character in jeopardy, the devotion to old fashioned storytelling, with a twist and surprise around every corner. I would give a little gasp at the end of each chapter and be forced to read on.

McKenzie’s novel is the story of Livy Jackson, who lost her sister Kara during college, and as the book opens, is bravely attending a work party where she’ll come face to face with her husband’s mistress. Though their affair has been over for a number of years, Livy is still nervous, and ignores calls from her friend Julia. To her eternal regret.

When her husband, Will, is called away on a business trip, Livy packs up the kids for a weekly get together with Julia and finds her dead, an apparent suicide. I’ve read few mysteries where a suicide is actually a suicide and this one is no exception, though it’s only Livy who’s sure that Julia was murdered.

As she starts to look into it she meets Julia’s mysterious boyfriend – she only referred to him as “Dirty Blond”, though his name is, in fact, Damian, and he’s sure Julia was murdered as well. The investigation drives Livy and Will apart as he’s suspicious of Damian, and Livy becomes suspicious of him and his former mistress. She feels there’s no one she can trust.

Trust is in fact the theme of the novel, and all in all I’d say McKenzie is a more sophisticated storyteller than McBeth, but both write books impossible to put down and both provided excellent endings, with McKenzie’s being a real knockout. Though I’d figured out whodunit shortly before the actual reveal, the suspense was so great it didn’t matter.

If these women follow in the footsteps of great female writers like Armstong, Eberhart and Fremlin, they have wonderful writing careers ahead of them. As it is, both have already gifted me with hours of reading pleasure.

Kate Rhodes: The Winter Foundlings

winter-foundlingsPsychologist Alice Quentin had a rough time in Rhodes’ last novel, A Killing of Angels. A consultant for the police, she got caught up in a serial killer case that almost ended her own life. So, in this book, for a relaxing change of pace, Alice decides to spend some time at a hospital for the criminally insane, doing research. Ahhh, how refreshing!

Rhodes is devoted to a Victorian love of coincidence and it actually serves her quite well, especially in this novel, where the central crime is connected to the very Victorian Foundling Home. Really, the entire set up could not be more Victorian – the hospital where Alice is doing her research is an old, somewhat renovated throw back out in the country, and Alice has rented a picturesque, if freezing, cottage in the middle of the woods, the kind you might think belongs in a fairy tale. It’s probably the one belonging to the witch in Hansel and Gretel.

What the Victorians had in spades was a love of narrative, and Rhodes shares both the love and the skill. When picking up one of her books, I’d advise you to clear your schedule, as despite yourself you probably won’t be able to put it down. I know Victorians used to lock themselves up in their studies for the latest Dickens installment – this is a very similar reading experience.

Rhodes is improving with each book and in this one, her third, she really hits her stride. Alice has no intention of getting re-involved with the police, but when her old buddy Detective Don Burns asks for just a quick favor, she can’t say no, as it involves a string of missing young girls who are later discovered in cardboard coffins, wearing Victorian style white nightgowns. What gets her is the most recent abductee, a charmer named Ella.

Rhodes gives Ella’s view of her captivity in between chapters, amping up the reader’s desire as much as Alice’s for her to be rescued. The killings appear very similar to the incarcerated Louis Kinsella’s crimes, and he rarely speaks, though he chooses to communicate with Alice. He gives her sporadic hints that have the police racing to figure out the clues and save the missing girls.

While I’m not a giant fan of books where the victims are children, this one wasn’t as awful as some, though it’s still pretty heartbreaking. Alice’s living situation adds to the atmosphere as along with falling asleep to the screeching of owls, she feels she’s being watched and indeed her cottage is eventually breached. Both the police and her brother beg her to get out. Everything works out, in true Victorian fashion, in the nick of time. However I’m hoping Alice heads back to the safety of London in the next book….all in all, a more than satisfactory read.

Judith Flanders: A Murder of Magpies

murder-of-magpiesJudith Flanders is a well known expert on Victorian manners and history, whose most recent book The Invention of Murder sits on our history mystery table. This is her first foray into fiction, and it’s delightful, causing me to both laugh aloud and copiously dog ear pages as Ms. Flanders is exquisitely quotable.

I loved her premise and setting. Her main character, Sam Clair, is a senior book editor at a major British publisher, and she’s in her forties. Flanders makes full use of Sam’s age, experience and gender, sliding in blindingly astute vignettes illustrating how women of a certain age tend to be ignored. As this book proves, ignoring a middle aged woman comes with its own perils.

I loved the set-up to the crime – Sam’s client and friend, fashion writer Kit, has vanished, having penned a new book about the murder of a well known designer (similarities to Versace’s death come to mind). Kit has also uncovered some money laundering and his manuscript begins to be a hot item, causing a break-in at Sam’s apartment.

Sam has already been interviewed by the police in the form of the delightful Jake, and the two spend a bit of time circling warily around each other. Helping the cause is Sam’s brilliant lawyer mother, Helena, and Sam’s mysterious upstairs neighbor, Mr. Rudiger. The four make a good informal team.

Flanders’ brisk, humorous intelligence carries the book through some of the soggier bits. The story about the money laundering is far too convoluted and confusing but when she returns to basic storytelling she’s on steadier ground, especially when she’s delivering a zinger of one form or another. One of my favorites came toward the end of the book, where Sam faces down the hotshot wunderkind editor, Ben: “Ben had always treated me like I was a brain-dead senior citizen, gently knitting and dozing in the corner while he got on with the cutting edge of publishing. It was time he realized everyone over twenty-five wasn’t senile yet. I smiled viciously at him, showing all my teeth.”

I definitely hope Sam Clair continues as she’s fascinating, smart and funny. In fiction, as in life, those are three qualities not to be missed.

Deborah Crombie: To Dwell in Darkness

todwellindarknessA new Crombie book is an event. Her Gemma James/Duncan Kincaid books have become instant classics, on a par with Peter Robinson’s, and I used to say, with Elizabeth George’s, but at this point I far prefer Crombie’s books to George’s. Her books are tighter and the character’s lives aren’t completely – or even at all – bleak and depressing. Gemma and Duncan have their problems, yes, but they are the problems of a normally lived life with a houseful of children ranging from teen to toddler.

That’s the background, of course, to what is a fine police procedural series, with her two protagonists serving in different areas of London. In this one, the main case belongs to Duncan, who is called to St. Pancras Railway station when a bomb explodes there and someone is burned to death. Duncan is adjusting to life in a new “nick” away from New Scotland Yard, and uncomfortable with it. He’s not sure of his new sergeant’s feelings about him but is trying to minimize the animosity she seems to have for him. As the railway station is a public place of course the first thoughts are of a terrorist attack, and when an officer on the scene turns out to be Melody, from Gemma’s team, the stakes are ramped up even higher.

Crombie presents the reader with a case that seems to have no cracks, no matter how much Duncan and his team interrogate the raggedy band of protesters who insist they were only out for publicity and thought they were setting off a smoke bomb, not a deadly grenade. As the case progresses small assumptions made by both the detectives and the actors in the story take on a darker meaning, making the reader more and more invested in the outcome. There’s also a secondary plot line involving a case of Gemma’s, the brutal rape and murder of a twelve year old girl.

If there’s a more careful writer than Deborah Crombie, I’m not sure who it would be. Her stories are meticulously assembled and the rewards for the reader are many. The end of this novel is sensationally good, an unexpected yet well grounded twist that was both chilling and believable. She also leaves a bit of a hanging thread for her next novel, which really can’t come soon enough. This book had one of the best endings of any book I’ve read this year – bravo.

G.M. Malliet: A Demon Summer

demonsummerOf all cozy writers, I think Malliet has the purest, most elegant prose.  Her writing is a joy to read.  That alone would set her books apart, but she’s also deliciously re-visiting the British village mystery and making it her own, to the delight of mystery fans everywhere.  My customers have quickly made her Max Tudor series a favorite.

So far she’s used seasonal titles and in this one she’s up to her last season, summer, as she spins a tale set inside a convent.  Max, the vicar of Nether Monkslip, has been asked by his bishop to look into a mysterious fruitcake poisoning originating in the convent of the Handmaids of St. Lucy.  The fruitcake is a bit of a specialty and the victim was the unpleasant Lord Lislelivit, happily recovered but angry and demanding answers.

Max is worried the bishop will discover his fiancée, Awena, is heavily pregnant, and that they aren’t yet married.  With this thought at the forefront of his mind, it’s with reluctance that he leaves Awena at home to begin a discreet investigation.  The nuns know why he’s there, of course, and Malliet utilizes the extremely traditional trope of his interviewing each suspect in turn.

This allows her to give the reader an insider view of the workings of the convent and the duties fulfilled by each sister – the kitcheness, the librarian, the infirmaress, the abbess, the novice, and so on – and in this way she’s able to tell her story, which of course includes the murder of Lord Lislelivit.  He’s the most unpleasant man on canvas, and so of course he has to go.

With the arrival of the police, the nuns draw in their skirts, as it were, but of course they are forced to cooperate with the authorities.  This is basically a locked room mystery as only someone inside the convent could have committed the murder.  Malliet adds to her suspect pool by including some guests on retreat (of which Lord Lislelivit was one), and so she is also able to fold the wider world into her story.

As Max investigates the gentle, contemplative life of the nuns, where prayer is the highest priority, he also uncovers some financial shuffling about on the part of the nuns and some connections, past and present, which eventually help him solve the crime.

While Malliet hews very closely to the Agatha Christie model we are all so familiar with, she’s made it more contemporary by supplying some psychological depth and reason for the characters to do the things they do.  She has a shade of darkness to her storytelling, not as grim as P.D. James’ or Ruth Rendell’s, but still it gives her stories an extra bit of distinction.

Unlike James and Rendell, she’s willing to have a happy ending, and this book ends with the union of Awena and Max in a very satisfactory fashion for the readers who have been following their courtship through now four books.  She’s also given the reader a bird’s eye view into the life of an Anglican convent.  All in all, a more than enjoyable read.