The Kate Shackleton mysteries by Frances Brody are going strong – this is the tenth in the series – so I was interested what it is about them which has proved so popular. Some of it will be the nicely complicated plots, full of murder, scandal and intrigue but I suspect that some of the popularity is because of the glorious backdrop to those plots. I’m not ashamed to admit that I watch certain tv shows (like Poldark, Death in Paradise or Midsomer Murders) because they are shot in beautiful settings – if the plot drags or becomes too far-fetched I’ve something pretty to look at – so I can understand why this could be the case with these books. The settings are all very definitely ‘Yorkshire’ but also varied: they range from Harrogate to the mill villages of West Yorkshire and from the Dales to the Yorkshire coast – anyone who knows Yorkshire will recognise scenes; those who have yet had the joy of visiting ‘God’s own county’ will find plenty of ideas for an itinerary.
A Snapshot of Murder opens in Headingley, Leeds, which isn’t a place I know hugely well apart from the area around St Michael’s Church and the Skyrack pub. Oddly enough, this is just where Kate Shackleton lives. The bulk of the book is then set in Howarth and Stanbury – villages I know well as they are just a few miles from my own home and popular tourist destinations because of their connection to the Brontë sisters – so I followed this story with particular interest. I also enjoy a bit of photography myself so the photography group plot was interesting – looking through a lens does certainly make you focus quite differently. The plot centres around Carine Murchison, a friend of Kate’s, and her fairly obnoxious husband Tobias: while the group are visiting Haworth (on the very weekend that the Parsonage first opened as a visitor attraction in August 1928) he is murdered. No-one will miss him but who killed him? Most of the group, and their hosts at Ponden Hall, have reason to want the man dead and we join Kate Shackleton as she delves deeper into their motives. Secrets are revealed about the realities of the Murchison’s marriage and their pasts and many suspects have to be eliminated from enquiries, including Kate’s young niece Harriet. Because we see all the angles (which are only gradually revealed to Kate) we are sure fairly early on who the killer is but, like a good episode of Columbo, this doesn’t distract from the telling of a good story.
Two things I have problems with: authors writing sequels/homages to famous authors and turning them into something which their original author would have hated and feeling obliged to read the whole of a series. Let’s deal with the second one first – in terms of tv and films I’m definitely a commitment-phobe. I don’t do box sets and while I will happily settle in on an otherwise unoccupied Sunday evening with an episode of Poldark I’m not bothered if I miss one or two. I’m pretty much the same with books – if you have to read all of the books in a series to ‘get it’ then it has to be special. Certainly since my reading habit got quite so bad (or possibly good…) I’ve found very few that I’ve stuck with. Harry Potter. Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books. The odd trilogy (Wool, for example) but generally I stop at the first book in a series. Nothing wrong with the writing, storytelling or world-building but my motto is ‘so many books, so little time’. I do need something really special in an author before I’ll read anything they write – and I will do it, believe me. I currently have custody of the entire collection of Georgette Heyer Regency romances which Mum and I have amassed over the years. My second problem – tone-deaf sequels – is something else which has made me wary over the years. Talking of Regency romance my Mum does tell of a terrible one where a young lady settles down for tea at White’s – we both hate rubbish historical research – but my personal worst sin is trying to put gratuitous sex into Jane Austen sequels. Unless you are writing for a themed erotica collection, just no.
Sophie Hannah has managed to avoid adding any historical wrongness (that I can see – I don’t claim any expertise on the middle years of the Twentieth century) to her Hercule Poirot novels but, more than that, she continues to create interesting and compelling adventures for Christie’s Belgian detective. Because they are not a series I find myself able to dip in and out without feeling like I’ve made a commitment: because they are so good I have read all three books produced so far!
In The Mystery of Three Quarters Poirot finds himself confronted by the rather formidable Sylvia Rule for sending her a letter accusing her of murder. The problem is that he didn’t send the letter. Or the ones making the same accusation towards three others – John McCrodden, son of a judge who is a firm supporter of the death penalty, Hugo Dockerill, a teacher at a boy’s school, and Miss Annabel Treadway, who is the grand-daughter of the deceased man. Of course the little grey cells are propelled into action and we soon begin to learn of a web of connections between the four. It begins to appear that the dead man, Barnabas Pandy, did have connections to a number of them and that all four are, if only tangentially, linked. Was Pandy murdered? Was one of the accused guilty of his death? Why did the letter-writer want to involve Poirot? These questions all need to be answered and Poirot attempts to find the answers with the help of Scotland Yard detective Edward Catchpool, the friends and family of all the accused and a small slice of cake…
Another excellent outing for Poirot – deftly plotted, a blend of humour and bloodshed which Christie would have been proud of, and believable characters. The Belgian continues to have a future in Sophie Hannah’s capable hands.
I love it when I find a new author – somebody’s first novel (or first published novel) – and especially if I get an advanced reading copy. I know smugness isn’t attractive but getting to read books early is one of the best perks of my job. When it is a new writer it’s even better – I’m one of small group of people who know that something good is about to hit the shelves. As you can see, I’m a person of simple pleasures. And recently a book turned up which fits these criteria and, as a bonus, is by a Bradford author (even if he now lives in That London…). If the far-reaching promotion does the trick then soon Joe Heap will be being talked about well beyond this corner of West Yorkshire.
Rules of Seeing focusses on Nova (a shortening of Safinova, her surname). She is an interpreter for the Metropolitan Police, a live wire, a force of nature. I mean, she’s blind, and has been from birth, but she has never let that hold her back – she speaks five languages and convinced her local deli to name a sandwich after her (pepperoni, pickles and peach slices, mmmm). Her story begins as her brother convinces her to undergo pioneering surgery which gives her the ability to see. This isn’t as simple as it sounds, however, because so much of our vision is in the brain not the eyes – Nova has to learn how to deal with the images she sees, with depth of vision, colour, interpreting movement and facial expressions. She meets Kate, an architect and the wife of a police officer, at a hospital and a friendship develops between the two women. The relationship changes, deepens, as Kate tries to escape from her controlling and sometimes violent partner until things come to a dramatic conclusion (in a hotel room in Bradford!)
I really enjoyed this debut novel. Nova is a great character – vivid, bold and yet vulnerable – and I was fascinated by her journey into the world of the seeing. I used to work at Bradford University bookshop selling books on optometry and know people who specialise in the psychology of vision but I still feel I learned a lot from Nova’s ‘rules of seeing’ which are dotted through the book. Although I’m not sure if I could face a Safinova Surprise sandwich…
I’ve never had an urge to be famous. I enjoyed acting when I was at school and university but the whole idea of being recognised wherever I went sounds horrid, to be honest. I’m happy that my friends, family and colleagues know who I am and, maybe, that the posts I do for my place of work’s social media (under the store name, not mine) make people laugh, think or want to read a particular book: anything more would be a bit much. But, when a local author opens his latest crime thriller with a body discovered in my actual place of work and asks if it is okay to call the bookseller who discover the body ‘Jane’ then, of course, it would be rude not to say ‘yes’….
City of Sinners is the third outing for unconventional Bradford detective Harry Virdee. He’s used to dealing with murders but this time there are some very odd things about the body – how did a young female bookseller end up hanging from the rafters of a bookshop set in a Victorian wool trading hall, who killed her and why are her eyes both sewn closed and yet still moving….Soon there are more bodies (all female) and Harry can’t work out how they are linked. But when a young student goes missing it soon becomes apparent that she is not yet dead because she is the daughter of the Home Secretary. Harry’s boss needs to transfer the case to a specialist unit but the killer declares he will only deal with Harry: it seems that this case is very, very personal.
This is Bradford Noir at its best. With a real sting in the tail and twistier than barbed wire – don’t miss it (even if just for the cameo role by a real live bookseller….).
P.S. If you want to meet the creator of Harry Virdee the book will be launched as part of Bradford Literature Festival on Friday 29th June. If you are very good maybe I’ll sign the book for you too – after all, I’m famous now…
Getting older is a funny thing. Some mornings my knees and ankles try to convince me I’m rapidly approaching decrepitude: at other times I forget I’m not in my twenties anymore…Some fictional characters can be equally confusing. Hercule Poirot was already middle-aged when he is first introduced in 1920 yet he is still solving crimes forty-six years later. For most of those years he is still described as middle-aged and can’t possibly be – surely no-one could consider that time of life to last into one’s 70s or 80s (although I’ll probably still have my moments when I get there…). But characters in long-running series don’t age normally in our minds (the Famous Five seemed to be at school for far longer than educationally possible) unless we are specifically told about it. Harry Potter and his colleagues are an exception. What this means is that, if we meet characters in a series when they are rather old, we often don’t find out about their youth. It is only on tv that we get the story of Inspector Morse’s early years in the police and, up until now, it has been hard to imagine Christopher Fowler’s pair of aging detectives, Bryant and May, as anything but corderoy-wearing, Werthers Original sucking, curmudgeonly old men. In this latest novel, however, we go back to 1969 and find out what they were like as young men.
To be honest, we do find out that Arthur Bryant was never really very good at being young. He is even less comfortable with Swinging London, young women or the country house party the two detectives have to attend while trying to protect Monty Hatton-Jones, the star witness in a high-profile court case attempting to prosecute a crooked property developer. He is particularly uncomfortable being away from London and finds everything about the countryside scary, untrustworthy and confusing: to be fair, by the time we get through a couple of dead bodies and two or three attempted murders, some catastrophic weather, dead phone lines and a particularly sinful vicar you kind of get his point. As becomes usual through their long career our two heroes are in trouble with their bosses from the start – as usual they use their unique skills to solve this most peculiar of cases. The author says that he wrote the book as a kind of traditional country house crime novel set just as that way of life was being killed off by the modernity of the 1960s – I was fascinated to think that, in fiction at least, that world of weekends in the country and complex period murder plots is still alive and kicking. But we are no longer the centre of the fashionable world – London is as class-bound as it ever was and only the fashions have changed…
It seems that lots of book bloggers are writers in the making. Which makes sense – to be a writer you should, first, be a reader and the reviews themselves are often great pieces of writing – but it has never been something I have aspired to. I’m wracking my brains enough just to come up with how I feel about the books I read so it can’t be surprising that sometimes it all comes out a bit incoherently. (Also I know a number of writers and I’ve heard about how much work is involved – I don’t think I could live with all the editing, frankly…) Bookselling is also a career that often leads into writing – Hugh Howey, Lucy Hounsom and David Mitchell did their turn with shelving, dusting and recommending – but I’m still never going to follow in their footsteps. I do, however, take an interest in authors who work for my employer – some of them are so good that I will even commit to reading the second book in a series. Joseph Knox, who used to work in one of our Manchester stores, has certainly gripped me with his thrillers centered around disgraced detective Aiden Waits.
In the first book, Sirens, Waits gets involved with local drugs gangs in Manchester and manages to help a young woman to escape from their clutches. Sadly some of his actions during that case, and his past history of drug use, mean that he is hanging onto his job by a thread. Even worse, his job is now working the night shift with one of the least popular men on the force, Peter ‘Sutty’ Sutcliffe and his time is spent investigating bin fires. That is until they are called in when a dead man is found in an abandoned city centre hotel: a man whose total anonymity is ensured by his filed-down teeth, non-existent fingerprints and completely label-free clothing. His only distinguishing feature is the rictus smile on his face. The plot is complicated by the impending messy divorce of the hotel’s owners, a girl compromised after a night at a local private club who appeals to Waits’ chivalrous instincts and the fact that someone is obviously tailing Waits, someone who seems to know more about his past than he does. The story is alternated with that of a young boy, drawn into a life of violence and criminality by a sinister father figure and, as the book progresses, these two plots begin to intertwine.
Joseph Knox shows an almost disturbing detail of knowledge about the worlds of crime, drugs and inner-city policing. I’m assured he’s a lovely chap but I hope, for the sake of the Head Office team he now works with, that he doesn’t take his research into the office with him. He is certainly a crime writer to watch but if he brings muffins in to work I wouldn’t eat them. Just in case…
I have a certain natural resistance to doing what I’m told. This seems to manifest itself mostly in my attitude to popular media (or even just critically acclaimed media) – if everyone starts to rave about a film, an album or a tv series I’m almost predisposed to decide not to bother with it. I’ve still never seen Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting or Game of Thrones for example. I don’t say this to sound superior – if you saw the list of films and tv shows I have seen you’d know I have to right to such a claim – but it is a fact. I am sure these are worth watching but I’ve just never got round to them and I don’t really care enough to remedy this. It is even more obvious with books – I only read To Kill a Mockingbird when they announced the publication of Go Set a Watchman – and I am probably more likely to avoid the books I am selling multiple copies of every day. I suppose with the books I have seen plot outlines, read reviews and seen comments from other booksellers so maybe I feel that I have little left to discover. But, sometimes, I do weaken. I read the book everyone is talking about and I find that I love it: I did this with Jane Harper’s first book, The Dry, and loved it so much I found myself leaping at the chance to read the follow-up.*
Force of Nature, like The Dry, is set in the Australian outback and features Aaron Falk. He is a police officer with the now compulsory troubled past but, rather unusually, he is not a homicide detective. In fact he is part of a unit which investigates financial irregularities and this means that his methods are a bit less obvious: this is not the maverick cop solving the whole crime by looking at cigar ash but one who employs an interesting combination of accountancy and inspiration. He is a very human and relatable character. He is only involved in the mystery at the centre of this book, the disappearance of a woman on a team-building weekend in the wilds of the Giralang Ranges, because the woman is central to his investigations into the company she works for. The book moves between the police search for the missing woman and the events which led to her disappearance. We gradually discover more about the group of women she worked with, their interwoven lives both now and in the past, but we also see the character of Falk develop as he considers his relationship with his father.
This is a really good crime novel – a plot which is just complicated enough but also makes perfect sense once you get to the denouement – and has some interesting characters. It was a fairly quick and easy read but it sticks with you for a long time afterwards: just what popular fiction should be…
*Always happy to admit I was wrong…