Hall of Mirrors – Christopher Fowler

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.

9780857523440To 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…

Jane

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The Smiling Man – Joseph Knox

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.

9780857524409In 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…

Jane

Force of Nature – Jane Harper

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.*

36116885Force 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…

Jane

*Always happy to admit I was wrong…

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

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….