The Fourteenth Letter – Claire Evans

It seems that, for some people, a good education is nothing without a thorough grounding in the classics. By which they mean Latin and Greek. Now, I consider myself to have a decent amount of schooling (and I have a hard time convincing any of my friends to play Trivial Pursuit with me…) but I am distinctly lacking in these areas. I know a little bit of botanical latin (in an effort not to be planting things in totally the wrong spot) and have been told that my surname is very similar sounding to a modern greek word meaning, well, poo-poo but that’s about it. Which means I started reading Claire Evans’ book assuming that there would be a reference, at some point, to the letter N. Silly me. Apparently it is all to do with Plato (and nothing to do with the Monty Python Philosopher’s Song either…).

9780751566406The Fourteenth Letter is a novel set in 1881. It starts gently, with a young girl being stabbed to death at her engagement party by a naked madman, moves on to an asthmatic young lawyer’s frantic efforts to keep one step ahead of murderous thugs in the pay of a beautiful red-headed aristocrat (helped by an aging policeman and an American girl who is like a cross between Annie Oakley, Lisbeth Salander and a version of Michelle Obama who found herself on the wrong side of the law) and ends up with a fiendish plot to take over the world. If this sounds too frantic then don’t worry – there is also plenty of character development, enough hints about back story to make those characters realistic and a happy(ish) ending. On a more serious side the book also takes a number of historical facts – the rise of eugenics, the criminal gangs in parts of London, the early days of the Met’s C.I.D, scientific advances and attitudes to women – and weaves them into a plausible and, as I said, fiendish plot. This is a confident debut novel – if you enjoy really well-written historical crime fiction you could do worse than give this book a try.

Jane

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Yesterday – Felicia Yap

How do you like your crime? Hard-boiled, cosy, police procedural? The list seems fairly endless and, after a while, one cosy crime novel or psychological thriller can seem pretty much like another. This isn’t to say that there aren’t good books out there but, well, after a hard week’s bookselling I start to get my franchises a bit mixed up. And this means I’m always glad to see a book which has something a bit more distinctive than usual about it. Ariana Franklin’s medieval female atheist pathologist perhaps, or A.A. Dhand’s Bradford-based Harry Virdee; or a distinctive setting like Bryant & May’s Peculiar Crimes Unit. But how about a crime novel where even the killer may not be aware that they committed a crime?

9781472242211The world in which Yesterday is set is our world. There are tabloid newspapers, reality tv, general elections and iPhones. All people, however, are one of two types – Monos, who can only remember the previous 24 hours, and Duos, whose memories span a whole 48 hours. Each night people fill in their diary (by law a private document, except in the case of serious crimes like murder) and each morning they learn the ‘facts’ of the day before. Society is split – Monos are barred from many careers and Duos are treated as a superior group – but academics are satisfied that, if people could remember everything they would divide themselves some other way. By nationality, skin colour or religion, perhaps… Against this setting Mark, a best-selling Duo novelist with a promising new career in politics looming, and his Mono wife are an unusual couple. They are being seen as the poster boy and girl for the government’s new policy of encouraging mixed marriages until the body of a woman, who turns out to be Mark’s mistress, is found and the police have only a short time to find the killer.

This was an interesting psychological thriller with a novel twist. Everyone has secrets – Mark, his wife Clare, his dead lover and the detective in charge of the case – and they are revealed as each of the four takes it in turns to tell their side of the story. But when facts are what you memorise from the words you write in your diary each day how do you find the truth?

Jane

Vindolanda – Adrian Goldsworthy

As well as reading and talking about books I’m quite partial to a laugh. Rob too, especially when politics is happening. We are prone to relieving the tension by trying to have whole conversations made up of quotes from some of our favourite comedians. Monty Python and Blackadder feature heavily, of course, as does the Mighty Boosh but our fall-back funnyman usually seems to be Eddie Izzard. Not sure why – apart from him being a pretty amazing guy, hilarious, clever and able to do stand-up in multiple languages – but bread guns and spider-gravy are part of our natural vocabulary. I mention this because it is impossible for me to think about the people who invaded these islands back in  AD43 without saying (quite possibly out loud) ‘we’re the Romans’ in a very squeaky voice. Which made reading historian Adrian Goldsworthy’s novel, Vindolanda, entertaining in a way he probably didn’t expect.

9781784974688Vindolanda was a Roman fort near to Hadrian’s Wall (although it was built before the wall itself) which I have visited a few times – full of low walls (another Izzardism) and with fascinating displays of what everyday life would have been like in the first century AD. It is in this area that the novel is set and where the hero, centurion Flavius Ferox, is responsible for keeping the peace between the Romans and the British tribes. His job is being made all the harder by a mysterious druidic figure known as the Stallion and the possibility of a Roman traitor. I particularly enjoyed the fact that Ferox is a bit of a maverick, with a past involving a missing woman and a drinking problem. This kind of policeman is a standard figure in crime thrillers (which this is despite its historical setting) – I can see no reason why they shouldn’t have existed in Roman Britain…

Goldsworthy’s detailed historical knowledge is obvious here. The military systems, the layout of forts, the life of the wives of senior officers, the politics of the relationships between the invaders and the native peoples all flow effortlessly onto the page. I never felt, however, that I was reading anything but a gripping crime thriller. Story always seemed as important as the historical facts. If you are looking for a series for fans of authors like Simon Scarrow, Conn Iggulden or Robert Fabbri from the ending of the book it seems obvious that Ferox will have further crimes and mysteries to solve in future volumes.

Jane

Don’t Let Go – Michel Bussi (translated by Sam Taylor)

I’ve got pretty simple tastes in tv most of the time*. I can take or leave reality shows, talent shows or real-life medical stuff. I’ll watch some sport and soaps (but if I miss them I’m not that bothered) but will almost always enjoy stuff on science, history and gardening. And then there are the programmes I really enjoy and will happily watch over and over again – Big Bang Theory and really cheesy detective shows. Not intellectual police dramas – I’ve watched things like Wallender but I’d rather read the books – but pure escapist cheese. The kind of series where you have one eye on the plot and the other on the lovely countryside – Midsomer Murders (known as ‘Murder Most reassuring’ in our house) or Death in Paradise (or ‘Murder Most Tropical’, inevitably). Bliss. Obviously with books I like a bit more variety (and, in my head, I can have whatever landscape I like) but sometimes these two areas overlap a touch.

9781474601788Michel Bussi’s previous two books (in English translation) have been set in Paris (and the snow-capped Jura mountains) and Giverny but this one ranges further afield to the island of Réunion. Still part of France but also very exotic to those used to the mainland – and certainly not immune to the ravages of drugs, revenge and murder. This was certainly less pre-watershed friendly than Death in Paradise and the darker side of life on a tropical paradise (built on slavery and colonialism…) is brought vividly to life. A couple and their young daughter are, it seems, enjoying their stay on Réunion until the wife, Liane Bellion, disappears from their hotel room. At first it seems to be a classic ‘locked-room’ mystery but soon evidence seems to point to Liane’s husband Martial – he goes on the run with his young daughter: the actions, it would seem, of a guilty man.

Of course, nothing is quite that simple – Martial has a secret to hide but we gradually come to realise that murder is probably not in his repertoire. It is quite refreshing not to be working through the usual psychological thriller routine of an unreliable narrator – we see the story from the point of view of Martial, Liane and their daughter but also from that of two police officers involved in the case. These varied voices show us the truth about not only Liane’s disappearance and Martial’s past but also about life of the island – the relationships between the varied ethnic groups and the undercurrents of racism, poverty and violence which tourists rarely see.

If you enjoy crime fiction with a side order of exotic scenery, a convoluted plot and interesting characters then give this (and Bussi’s other books) a try. Any urge to drink rum while reading is your own problem…..

Jane

*I’m also, possibly, the last person left who watches about 95% of their tv in real time. If I’m not home to watch it I probably never will – I’ve too many books to read to be doing with catch-up….

Arrowood – Mick Finlay

I was brought up in the days when you had to like one thing or the other. It started with the choice between the Bay City Rollers and David Cassidy, moved on to Wham vs Duran Duran and reached its peak in the Britpop era. Obviously, I’m awkward. I spent the seventies quite liking all the big names in pop but saving my actual fandom for the Wombles (I was 7 – surely I was meant to like kids bands rather than wasting my time wanting to marry Donny Osmond…), in the eighties I was still listening to everything but developing my teen love of Prog Rock (played Yes and Genesis at my wedding, there’s nothing like a twelve-minute long first dance…) and in the nineties, alongside Blur and Oasis, I’d discovered folk-rock and Nick Drake. Let’s face it, if I see a crowd all looking in the same direction I’ll have a quick glance and then a good look round to see what they’re missing. In the late Victorian London of Mick Finlay’s novel I’m the kind of person who would have read all about Sherlock Holmes in the paper and then wondered about all the cases he didn’t take. Which is how most people seem to discover Arrowood…

9780008203184William Arrowood is a detective and he’s, frankly, got no time for Sherlock Holmes. Which is a shame because most of the rest of London have got such a crush on him it’s almost as if Benedict Cumberbatch were already in the role – there is a great running joke throughout the book that whenever Arrowood and his assistant Barnett meet anyone new they start to enthuse about the great Sherlock, much to Arrowood’s disgust. Our heroes, however, take on the cases of people who are too poor to afford Baker Street rates and they delve into cases which seem much more sordid than anything Dr Watson would care to describe. In this book they are searching for a missing young Frenchman but soon become involved with the criminal underworld (in the form of a gang who have London sown up and would like to move onto stitching up Arrowood and Barnett), the fight for Irish independence, human trafficking and prostitution. The plot is rather nicely complicated and I really liked some of the characters. It looks as though this book ends poised to begin a whole series – in which case I look forward to hearing more about Neddy, the obligatory urchin, and Arrowood’s indefatigable sister.

Jane

Crimson Snow – Martin Edwards (Editor)

There is something about winter which seems to turns folks’ minds to blood, murder and mayhem. Which is nice. So long as we are just talking about fictional blood, murder and mayhem, of course…The combination of dark nights, wild weather and time spent with the further reaches of your friends and family group with no hope of escape makes crime fiction seem like the best possible option. Luckily the world of publishing knows this and breaks out the good stuff for the autumn schedules. At the moment we have new books by Lee Child, Martina Cole, Michael Connelly and Belinda Bauer covering all sorts of modern day killers and their victims but I decided to go for something a little bit more classic.

crimson-snowCrimson Snow is a collection of short stories in the British Library Crime Classics series. The stories were written between 1906 and 1992 – which goes to show that a good, seasonal crime story is a pretty timeless thing – and, although most are pure detective stories, some have an air of ghost stories giving an eeirie cast to the book. Some of the authors are well-known (Margery Allingham, Julian Symons) and others less so. The lesser known authors, however, look to be worth looking into – some are very good and rather prolific. My personal favourite is the last story in the book, The Carol Singers by Josephine Bell, which is nicely twisty and rather twistedly nasty.

Jane

Death at the Seaside – Frances Brody

After enjoying my first foray into the world of Frances Brody and her 1920 sleuth Kate Shackleton I was very much looking forward to this next adventure. I was not at all disappointed either – and I do love finding another reliably good writer, adding another one to my personal collection (so I can pick and chose between golden age crime, science-fiction or romance depending on my mood). The fact that this particular writer sets her books in my adopted home of Yorkshire is an added bonus.

seasideAfter various stories set around a number of Yorkshire Dales villages our heroine decides to travel east to visit Whitby. She plans to see an old school friend, Alma, and her daughter Felicity, to enjoy the peace and quiet of a seaside town and to make the most of the fact that crimes tend to be thin on the ground in the sleepy month of August. Of course things don’t go strictly to plan – Felicity has disappeared and a local jeweller, Jack Phillips, is found dead. Alma considered Jack to be her ‘special gentleman friend’ but although she want’s Kate to investigate his death the local police would rather she minded her own business.

 

Once again the story is beautifully plotted – although I could see some twists ahead of time there were still plenty of surprises – and I enjoyed the various characters, both recurring ones and those specific to this story. Kate’s usual helpers, Jim Sykes and Mrs Sugden, are fortunately also holidaying in the area (and both seem to find that sleuthing is more rewarding than trying to relax!) so we get see them at work once more. The Whitby characters are an odd mixture of businessmen, artists and fortune-tellers and they all seem to have secrets for Kate to uncover. The period detail is well researched and, because everything fits so well into that period, this does mean that this book is one I can happily recommend to those who prefer their murder mysteries without graphic sex scenes or lots of swearing.

Of course my only problem now is that I still need to find time to go back and read the first six books in the series. I could definitely do with a time machine of some sort…

Jane