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.


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…..


*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.


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.


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…



Strangers – Paul Finch

I generally like my crime fiction to be either classic Golden Age stuff (I’m a huge Dorothy L. Sayers fan) or a bit silly. I’m still hoping that Jasper Fforde will write more in the brilliant Nursery Crimes series – it took the mickey out of all the clichés of crime fiction and finally answered the vital question of whether gingerbread is a cake or a biscuit – and am planning to work my way through Ian Sansom’s County Guides book. Of course I also enjoy a good historical sleuth, like C. J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake or Ariana Franklin’s Adelia Vesuvia, and I’m not immune to the lure of a psychological thriller like Gone Girl and the Widow. Oddly, what I don’t read much of is traditional, gritty, detective novels. I read a couple of Jo Nesbo novels, the Big Sleep (for our book group) and a couple of Donna Leon’s Brunetti stories but not much else. But, at Harpercollins’ recent Big Book Bonanza, I had a copy of a crime novel pressed into my hand (while in the presence of the author, ex-policeman and Bill writer, Paul Finch). In these circumstances it would be rude not to, surely?

strangersThe author gave a bit of a talk about the background to the story – he was moving away from his usual character Mark Heckenberg and the fictional National Crime Group to write about a young female officer in Manchester – and, I have to admit, I was intrigued. I know Manchester reasonably well and the officer, PC Lucy Clayburn sounded like an interesting character.

The story gripped from the beginning as we meet Lucy (in a sort of prologue), a very young officer who makes a near fatal mistake while left in charge of a dangerous prisoner. Her ambition is to be a detective and this seems to have scuppered her chances for advancement. Ten years later she hopes to impress and resurrect her career by getting involved in the search for a very unusual murderer – a female serial killer. This is dangerous work, involving going undercover among the street prostitutes of the North-West and, potentially, contact with the biggest names in the Manchester underworld. In the end, however, it is the secrets Lucy discovers about her own family which could be the most dangerous.

I really enjoyed this book. The plot was nicely convoluted, the characters were well-defined and the action fairly rattled along. I particularly liked the way that female officers were shown in both junior and senior roles – and that they were shown to have as many flaws as their male colleagues. If you enjoy a fast-paced, northern detective story with lots of gruesome detail then I think I can recommend Paul Finch to you…



Firemaker – Peter May

A while ago our shop reading group chose a Peter May novel, The Blackhouse. We were looking for a good, solid crime novel and the fact that the book was part of our (hugely successful) #BuyBooksforSyria campaign was a bonus. It was one of our more popular picks as, in my recollection, we all enjoyed the combination of gruesome crime and bleakly beautiful setting. The gaelic names, both people and places, gave me a little bit of a problem but that was part of the fun to be honest. I’ve also added the Hebrides to my list of ‘places I’d like to visit’ – for the scenery, obviously, rather than the chance to get mixed up in a complicated crime drama…I picked up The Firemaker, the first in the reissued China Thrillers series by Peter May, because I was interested to see how May would deal with a setting which is less familiar to him than his native Hebridean islands. There was an obvious danger that I’d be adding Beijing to my bucket list but I thought it was worth the risk.

firemakerI can start off by saying that I did enjoy the story – Margaret Campbell, a forensic pathologist, travels to China to spend six weeks teaching at a Chinese policing college and also to escape from her disastrous personal life back home in Chicago. She meets newly promoted Beijing detective Li Yan and together they investigate a series of murders which lead to the very highest of places. There are plenty of twists and turns, you get to really understand the emotional lives of both characters and, I think, you learn quite a lot about the differences between life in China and the West. Generally, a successful crime novel. However, there was a sort of romance element to the book, with a developing relationship between Margaret and Li Yan, which didn’t quite work for me. It wasn’t awful but I was slightly irritated by some aspects of it. I’m not sure I can even put my finger on what the problem was – it just didn’t quite gel for me – and hope that the relationship develops over the course of the next few novels featuring the pair. My only other issue was that I found some of the dialogue, in the mouths of the Chinese characters, a little cringeworthy. I can see that they need to reflect the level of English spoken by the characters but it did just sound a little bit like Ting Tong from Little Britain…

That said I can certainly recommend this book. If you like your crime novels to have a fast pace, lots of (fairly) plausible science and interesting settings then this will probably suit you. If you enjoy trying to work out which of the minor characters is going to be killed off despite how much we know of their background and how much they are loved or respected by the heroes then that’s a bonus for you! I’m probably not going to be planning a trip to China any time soon but if the next volume in this series came my way I’d pick it up…