Review: “Operation Goodwood” By Sara Sheridan (Novel)

Well, it has been far too long since I read one of Sara Sheridan’s “Mirabelle Bevan” historical detective novels. Although I read the first two books in 2017 (but only got round to reviewing the first one), I didn’t get round to reading any more of them, since I was going through a phase of not reading much back then.

When I remembered the series, I looked for my copies of the third and fourth books, but couldn’t remember where I’d put them (Edit: I finally found them shortly after finishing the first draft of this review). So, instead, I ended up buying a cheap second-hand hardback copy of the fifth novel “Operation Goodwood” (2016) online. And, since this is a series where each novel tells a self-contained story, I thought that I’d read it next.

So, let’s take a look at “Operation Goodwood”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2016 Constable (UK) hardback edition of “Operation Goodwood” that I read.

The novel begins in summer 1955 at Goodwood. Debt collector and ex-SOE agent Mirabelle Bevan is watching a motor race with her partner Superintendent McGregor. After catching a pickpocket sneaking through the crowd, Mirabelle returns the stolen money just in time to see a racer called Dougie Beaumont beat Stirling Moss to the finish line.

Several weeks later, Mirabelle wakes up in the middle of the night in her flat in Brighton. The flat is on fire! After a narrow escape from the burning building, she watches the fire service stretcher a dead body out of the flat above. To her shock, the body is none other than Dougie Beaumont. Although the injuries on his neck suggest that he took his own life, something doesn’t quite add up about this. So, Mirabelle decides to investigate…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a fairly solid historical detective novel. Although it didn’t have quite the same gloomy “film noir”-like atmosphere as the earlier books in the series that I’ve read, it is still a rather compelling mystery that is kind of a bit like a cross between a formal Agatha Christie-style detective story and a more modern/gritty historical detective novel.

The novel’s detective elements are reasonably good, with the story taking more of an Agatha Christie-style emphasis on interviewing people and finding out the motive for the crime (as opposed to Sherlock Holmes-style deductions from physical evidence). Even so, there’s a fair amount of hidden clues, red herrings, sneaking around and clever ruses here too.

As you would expect from a detective story, there is also a second murder that is linked to the first one. But, whilst this second murder is solved, the culprit for the first one isn’t explicitly stated. However, the novel gives enough background information, hints etc… for astute readers to guess who was probably responsible for it. Given the motive, this implied conclusion seems somewhat realistic and also helps to add a slightly chilling tone to this part of the story.

In terms of the historical setting, it is reasonably well written. In addition to a good variety of locations (eg: Brighton, Goodwood, London, Chichester, Tangmere etc..), the novel also does the usual thing of contrasting the genteel popular image of 1950s Britain with all of the stifling repression, prejudices, conservatism etc.. that lurked beneath the surface of it.

There are also quite a few references to major events and historical figures of the time, with some major elements of the plot also revolving around a less well-known (and very disturbing) part of 1950s history. But, if you’ve read about these colonial atrocities before, then the fact that references to them are somewhat understated during the early-middle parts of the novel might tip you off about the ending though. Even so, the novel does use the reader’s knowledge of 1950s history to plant a few clever red herrings too.

In terms of the characters, they are fairly well-written. In addition to a few familiar faces from earlier books in the series (eg: Vesta, Charlie etc..), Mirabelle is the same confident, realistic and resourceful detective as usual too. McGregor is, in the classic fashion, an official detective who is always a few steps behind Mirabelle (in addition to being the source of a few scenes of relationship-based drama too). Most of the other characters are either ordinary people who help Mirabelle or aristocrats who have secrets and/or possible motives for murder.

In terms of the writing, the novel’s third person narration is formal and descriptive enough to emphasise the 1950s setting, but “matter of fact” enough to seem both modern and easily-readable. As you would expect from a classic-style detective story, the third-person narrator always follows Mirabelle and she is present during pretty much every scene of the novel.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is reasonably good. At a fairly efficient 272 pages in length (plus several pages of historical notes, reading group questions etc..), this novel never really feels bloated or over-extended. Likewise, whilst the story moves along at a fairly moderate pace, it is compelling enough for it not to seem too slow-paced.

All in all, this is a reasonably good detective novel. Whilst it doesn’t really have the same gloomy atmosphere as the earlier books in the series, and the focus on aristocratic characters/suspects gives the novel a slightly old-school Agatha Christie-like tone which means that it doesn’t stand out from the crowd as much as I’d have liked, it is still a fairly solid detective story.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get about a four.

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Review: “Glory In Death” By J.D.Robb (Novel)

Well, for today, I thought that I’d take a look at a sci-fi detective novel from 1995 called “Glory In Death” by J.D.Robb. This was a book that I found by accident whilst searching one of my book piles for another book.

According to the receipt that was still in it, I found it in a charity shop in Rugeley a little over a decade ago – and, if I remember rightly, I bought it because of the cool “Blade Runner”/1990s computer game-style cyberpunk cover art.

So, let’s take a look at “Glory In Death”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS.

This is the 1997 New English Library (UK) paperback edition of “Glory In Death” that I read.

The novel is set in New York in 2058. Tough-as-nail police lieutenant Eve Dallas has been called out to a crime scene in one of the rougher parts of town after a prominent prosecutor called Cicely Towers has been found murdered.

After it becomes obvious that the crime wasn’t a robbery, Eve finds herself investigating the opulent lives of many of Cicely’s rich friends and family in the hope of finding the killer. Not only that, because of the prominent nature of the case, the press are also hounding her too and the police chief (also a friend of Cicely’s) wants results.

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it was a bit different to what I’d expected. In short, if you’re expecting a neon-drenched cyberpunk thriller, you’re probably going to be a little disappointed. But, if you expect a slightly stylised police procedural thriller with some sci-fi/cyberpunk and romance elements, then you’ll probably enjoy this novel more. This is also one of those novels that only really gets ultra-compelling/ fast-paced during the later parts too.

In terms of the novel’s detective elements, they’re reasonably well-written. This novel is very much a police procedural novel and the story’s detective elements are handled fairly well.

There are several possible suspects and there’s a good mixture of interviews, forensics and other types of detection. Plus, of course, Eve also has to deal with the press/media too, which adds a bit of extra conflict and drama to the story (whilst also posing questions about journalistic ethics etc… too). And, like in many detective stories, this is one of those stories that becomes more and more compelling and suspenseful as it goes along.

Likewise, the case itself is fairly well-plotted, with enough subtle clues and red herrings to keep things unpredictable until the killer is finally revealed. Although avid readers of the detective genre may have better luck, I incorrectly guessed who the killer was at least once whilst reading the novel. Not to mention that Eve’s eventual confrontation with the killer is a fairly satisfying (if rather dark and gritty) conclusion to the story too.

The novel’s sci-fi elements are more understated than I expected. Whilst there are a few subtle “Blade Runner” references (eg: an advertising blimp, a photo-enhancement machine etc…), a couple of rain-soaked urban locations and a few scenes involving computers/VR, this isn’t really quite as much of a cyberpunk novel as I’d expected.

In short, the sci-fi elements are often more of a background detail that adds flavour to the story rather than an integral part of the story. With a few exceptions (eg: casinos in space etc..), this story could almost take place in the present day without too many changes.

For example, most of the novel’s futuristic forensic technology wouldn’t be too out of place in a stylised modern TV show like “NCIS” or “CSI”. So, given that this novel is from the mid-1990s, it is at least slightly ahead of it’s time.

The novel’s romance elements are interesting, if somewhat stylised. In short, the main love interest – Roarke – happens to be a multi-millionaire (with a lavish mansion, several holiday homes, a robot butler etc..) who has enough of a shady past to be intriguingly mysterious. He is passionate about Eve and cares deeply about her happiness, but is also arrogant enough for there to be several dramatic arguments between them. Whilst the romance elements work reasonably well, they can sometimes get in the way of the main story a bit (such as when Eve and Roarke randomly take a short holiday to Mexico during a dramatic part of the story).

In terms of the characters, the main characters are a bit stylised. Eve is a typical tough-as-nails detective with a dark past and a hunger for justice, Roarke is – as mentioned earlier – a slightly stylised love interest. But, the background characters are often a bit more nuanced and realistic which helps to add atmosphere to the story, not to mention that many of them are morally ambiguous enough that you’ll have a difficult job guessing which one is the killer.

In terms of the writing, the novel’s third-person narration is reasonably “matter of fact”, with some descriptive moments too. It’s hardboiled enough to fit in with the tone of the story, but descriptive enough to give everything a bit of vividness.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is ok. At 296 pages in length, it doesn’t seem too long. Plus, although most of the novel is a fairly moderately paced story about methodical investigation and interviews, it becomes more compelling and fast-paced during the later parts of the story.

As for how this twenty-four year old novel has aged, it has aged surprising well. Whilst it contains a couple of dated descriptions, this is a novel that could have almost been written in the present day. Thanks to the slightly futuristic setting and the focus on rich people who live timelessly opulent lives, this novel seems surprisingly modern. Surprisingly, there are even smartphones (or portable video phones) in this novel too. But, thankfully, there isn’t any modern-style social media in this novel 🙂

All in all, this is a reasonably well-written, if stylised, police procedural novel with some romance and cyberpunk elements. Yes, it was a bit different to what I’d expected but, during the later parts of it, I found that I couldn’t really put the book down.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would possibly get a four.

Review: “Heresy” By S. J. Parris (Novel)

Well, it has been quite a while since I last read a historical novel. And, after seeing the name Giordano Bruno mentioned in the previous novel I read, I remembered a really brilliant historical thriller I read a couple of months earlier called “Sacrilege” by S. J. Parris.

A few weeks after I’d read that novel, I ended up returning to the charity shop in Petersfield where I bought it and found two other Parris novels there. So, I thought that it was finally time to take a look at one of them – Parris’ 2010 novel “Heresy”.

So, let’s take a look at “Heresy”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2011 Harper (UK) paperback edition of “Heresy” that I read.

The novel begins with a short scene set in Naples in 1576. A monk called Giordano Bruno is reading a banned manuscript in the monastery’s privy when he is interrupted by the suspicious abbot. Barely having time to flush the manuscript, Bruno is placed under suspicion and ordered to wait for the inquisition. Luckily for Bruno, his room-mate gives him a dagger and tells him to flee out of the window before it is too late.

The story then flashes forwards to London in 1583. By now, Bruno is a friend of Sir Philip Sidney – nephew of Sir Francis Walshingham, the Queen’s spymaster. Sidney is about to take a trip to Oxford University to entertain an obnoxious nobleman from Poland and Bruno is invited too. Although Bruno originally plans to attend a debate and look for a lost Greek manuscript in Oxford, Walshingham orders Bruno to be on the look out for religious plots too.

Of course, a couple of days after Bruno arrives at the university, there is a brutal murder in the grounds and he is tasked with investigating it….

One of the first things I will say about this novel is that, whilst it is a bit more slow-paced than Parris’ “Sacrilege”, it’s a very atmospheric and compelling detective story that could easily rival some of C. J. Sansom’s earlier “Shardlake” novels. In addition to the traditional detective story thing of setting most of the story in one claustrophobic location (eg: Oxford), this novel also includes some suspsenful and gripping spy thriller elements too. Even so, this is slightly more of a detective story than a thriller.

The novel’s detective elements are pretty interesting too, with Bruno finding himself on the trail of a serial killer who kills their victims in ways reminiscent of the famous religious martyrs of the time. The investigation itself remains a fairly constant thing throughout the novel and, although some of the clues that Bruno finds seem a little bit contrived, there is usually a logical explanation for them and they help to keep the story moving at a fairly decent pace. Plus, of course, the gloomy, rainy spires of Oxford are the perfect setting for a detective story too 🙂

Likewise, whilst the novel’s spy thriller elements aren’t emphasised to the same extent that they are in Parris’ “Sacrilege”, they still help to add a bit of thrillingly suspenseful drama to the story. In addition to a few secret codes, clandestine meetings and suspenseful scenes of snooping, there are also some quite literal “cloak and dagger” moments later in the story that really help to keep the denouement fairly gripping. Even so, this novel is more of a detective story than a thriller.

Like in a lot of novels set in Elizabethan times, the fractious religious politics of the time play a rather large part in this story and also help to add a rather ominous atmosphere to the story too. In a genius move, Parris ensures that Bruno doesn’t really take too much of a side in these religious disputes, which allows for both of the major Christian denominations of the time to be depicted in an equally critical way.

In terms of the characters, they’re fairly good. Not only is Bruno a fairly interesting protagonist, but he often finds himself in situations where he is unsure of who he can trust, which helps to add suspense to the story. The novel’s cast of background characters all come across as reasonably realistic people, who almost all have some kind of tragedy or secret in their lives. This really helps to emphasise the harsh nature of the time the story is set in, in addition to adding a bit of extra mystery to the story too.

In terms of the writing, the novel’s first-person narration is very well-written. Like in C.J.Sansom’s “Shardlake” novels, most of the story’s narration is kept fairly “timeless”, with only a few olde-worlde phrases added occasionally to give the story flavour. This allows the story to remain readable and move at a decent pace. Plus, like with a lot of historical novels, there’s also a fair amount of emphasis on atmospheric descriptions and dialogue too.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is ok. Although, at 474 pages long, it could have possibly been trimmed a bit, it never really felt too long. Likewise, although the story remains fairly moderately-paced until some of the more fast-paced scenes later in the story, the story’s underlying mystery and the general atmosphere of the story really help to keep these slower parts of the story compelling.

All in all, this is a really intriguing and atmospheric detective novel. Yes, it isn’t as fast-paced as Parris’ “Sacrilege”, but it is still a reasonably compelling historical mystery story that fans of C.J.Sansom will probably enjoy 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least four.

Review: “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas” by Agatha Christie (Novel)

Well, since I seem to be going through a bit of a detective fiction phase at the moment, I thought that I’d take a look at Agatha Christie’s 1938 novel “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas” today.

I found a second-hand copy of this novel online a couple of weeks earlier, after both getting nostalgic about binge-watching a DVD boxset or two of the old ITV adaptation of “Poirot” a couple of years ago and realising that it has been at least a decade since I last read an Agatha Christie novel.

So, let’s take a look at “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS, but I’ll avoid giving away the ending.

This is the 2013 Harper (UK) paperback edition of “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas” that I read.

The novel begins three days before Christmas in a train station in London where a man called Stephen Farr happens to meet a beautiful woman called Pilar Estravados who has been invited to Gorston Hall in order to meet her long-lost grandfather, Simeon Lee.

Meanwhile, Simeon Lee’s middle-aged sons are talking to their wives about the Christmas invitations. None of them like Simeon very much, what with him being the kind of grumpy, cynical, rich old man who sometimes cackles to himself when no-one is looking. Likewise, many of his sons also harbour resentment about his cold demeanour during their late mother’s illness. Still, out of formality and tradition, they reluctantly agree to spend Christmas at Gorston Hall.

Needless to say, it is the kind of miserable family Christmas that you would expect. Something not helped by the fact that Simeon is brutally murdered in bizarre circumstances, with his throat slashed inside a locked room. Luckily for the head of the local police, famed investigator Hercule Poirot is visiting him for Christmas….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it was a lot of fun to read. Everything from the hilariously stuffy and formal bickering during the early parts, to the intriguing locked room mystery (where everyone is a suspect) to the scenes featuring the hilariously, cartoonishly evil Simeon Lee were just so much fun to read. This novel is a proper, traditional Agatha Christie mystery 🙂

Although the early parts of the novel focus more on the characters and backstory, as soon as the murder happens, the story becomes the kind of focused, gripping detective story that you would expect. Interestingly, this novel includes some vaguely Sherlock Holmes-style deductions made from evidence and experimentation in addition to Poirot’s more typical interview-based methods of detection. Plus, the fact that pretty much every character has a motive for murder really helps to keep things suspenseful too.

Yes, some of the plot twists and events of the story are a little bit contrived at times – although, like with every good detective story, there’s a subtle clue for every part of the mystery (which Poirot explains during his traditional end-of-story speech) and a few clever red herrings too. Plus, with something as intriguing as a locked room mystery, a certain amount of contrivance is to be expected anyway.

One amusing thing about this novel is that it is prefaced by a letter from Agatha Christie to her brother-in-law which states that she wrote this story because he expressed dismay about how “refined” and “anaemic” some of her recent stories had been. As such, this novel is – by Agatha Christie standards – surprisingly grisly (but, it’s pretty tame by modern standards). But, the bloody nature of the crime helps to lend the story a little bit more of a Sherlock Holmes-style atmosphere, which is kind of cool.

The novel’s characters are fairly good too. They’re given enough characterisation to make the reader understand their personalities and motives, with a lot of the novel’s funnier and more dramatic moments happening during their various arguments with each other. The stand-out character has to be Simeon Lee, who is this hilariously melodramatic grumpy old man (seriously, you can just imagine an actor really hamming it up when you read his scenes 🙂 ). Surprisingly, Poirot doesn’t actually get a huge amount of characterisation in this novel – then again, pretty much everyone knows who Hercule Poirot is anyway.

In terms of the writing, it’s fairly good. The novel’s third-person narration is fairly readable and, although it is a little bit on the formal side (after all, it was written less than 40 years after the 19th century) it is still fairly easily readable today. Likewise, the novel also focuses quite a bit on dialogue too, which helps to keep the story flowing at a fairly reasonable pace too.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is excellent. At a lean and efficient 268 pages in length, the novel never really feels bloated. Likewise, there’s a good contrast between the slightly slower dialogue and background scenes at the beginning and the slightly faster-paced and wonderfully focused detective scenes after the murder has been committed. Whilst you shouldn’t expect an ultra-fast paced novel, this isn’t as much of a slow-paced novel as you might expect either.

As for how this eighty-one year old novel has aged, it has aged surprisingly well 🙂 Yes, there are a few slightly dated generalisations (eg: about relationships, about the differences between English people and people from mainland Europe etc..), not to mention that some “modern” words (eg: “fantastic”, “batteries” etc..) actually use their completely different old-fashioned meanings in this novel. But, for the most part, this novel has aged really well. It’s still fairly gripping, fairly readable and filled with the kind of timeless vintage charm that you would expect.

All in all, this is a really enjoyable “old school” detective novel 🙂 If you want an intriguing locked room mystery, if you find stuffy aristocrats bickering with each other absolutely hilarious and if you want a reasonably focused, well-paced detective story, then you can’t go wrong with this one 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least a four.

Review: “The Midnight Line” By Lee Child (Novel)

Well, I hadn’t planned to read a Lee Child novel (the last one I read was in 2017, when I wasn’t reading much) but, after reading a fairly slow-paced novel recently, I wanted something relaxing, gripping and refreshingly fast-paced.

Out of instinct, I’d bought a copy of Child’s 2017 novel “The Midnight Line” in a charity shop in Petersfield last year when I realised that it was a Lee Child novel I hadn’t even heard of before. So, this seemed like a good time to read it.

So, let’s take a look at “The Midnight Line”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS.

This is the 2018 Bantam (UK) “Richard & Judy’s Book Club” paperback edition of “The Midnight Line” that I read.

The novel starts with an ex-military policeman Jack Reacher in Milwaukee. His lover has just left him after three days together and Reacher decides to deal with this by continuing his travels. So, he gets on a bus that is heading for a small town near Lake Superior.

But, on the way, the bus stops off for a rest stop at a small town. Reacher wanders around the town and ends up in the local pawn shop. He spots a ring. It is a graduation ring from the prestigious West Point US military academy that is inscribed with the initials “S. R. S” . Soldiers don’t usually sell things like that. So, after buying the ring, Reacher stays in town and decides to track down the owner….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that I’d forgotten how good Lee Child novels are. Yes, even though this one doesn’t quite live up to the standards of some of Child’s older novels (eg: “Gone Tomorrow”, “The Hard Way”, “Persuader”, “Tripwire” etc..) – it’s still the kind of gripping, incredibly readable, precisely-written thriller novel that is as compellingly relaxing as a good DVD boxset. Or, to put it another way, even a “low-budget” Lee Child novel is still considerably better than most books by many other thriller authors.

For the most part, this novel is actually more of a detective thriller novel than an action-thriller novel. Seriously, there are only about four or five short fight scenes in the entire book – with at least a few other moments where Reacher actually solves problems in a non-violent way. Surprisingly, this actually adds some extra realism (and unpredictability) to the novel, in addition to placing emphasis on the detective elements of the story too.

And, for the most part, these work fairly well – with Reacher and several other detectives (eg: a cop, a P.I. and a federal agent) investigating the mysterious case in different ways and for different reasons. However, a lot of the story’s gripping suspense is lost when Reacher meets the ring’s owner about two-thirds of the way through the novel. After that, the novel turns into slightly more of a conventional crime thriller/action-thriller novel – which is good, although it isn’t quite as good as the compelling mystery of the scenes where Reacher is trying to find out about who owns the ring.

Even so, these crime thriller/action-thriller scenes later in the book still remain reasonably compelling, thanks to a well-placed set piece and a rather clever, if unconventional, plot device involving a character with a dwindling supply of narcotics. However, Reacher’s final showdown with the novel’s main villain is surprisingly brief, anti-climactic and understated (with the most dramatic part of the scene also being little more than an implied background detail too).

Likewise, given that the crime thriller elements of the novel revolve around the drug trade, this allows Lee Child to explore how the opioid epidemic has affected rural America. This element of the book is handled surprisingly well, with Child’s ire about the situation quite rightly directed towards pharmaceutical companies and organised crime gangs, instead of their victims (who are presented in a fairly compassionate way).

In terms of the settings, most of this novel takes place in a small town and in various remote areas of Wyoming. Although this rural remoteness adds some mystery and menace to a few scenes in the novel, it does tend to get a little bit dull after a while. Even so, the plot still helps to keep everything interesting – especially during the parts where Reacher is trying to track down the ring’s owner.

As for the characters, they’re reasonably good. Jack Reacher is, well, Jack Reacher – he’s the same intelligent, tall and courageous wandering ex-military policeman as usual (although he’s a little bit more of a pacifist, relatively speaking, in this novel). The other characters are also pretty interesting, with most of them having distinctive quirks, motivations and flaws. However, the novel’s main villain doesn’t quite get enough characterisation though. Although the characterisation in this novel is very slightly on the minimalist side of things, it still works reasonably well and you’ll find yourself caring about what happens to the characters.

One interesting element of this novel is how all of the various detectives etc… interact with each other. Unlike in some of Lee Child’s other novels, Reacher seems to be on incredibly good terms with the police in this novel – with his old military credentials (and the business that the villains are in) basically meaning that the police everywhere he goes end up siding with him, helping him out and/or looking the other way when he breaks the rules. I’m not sure if this is realistic or not, but it works reasonably well – although it slightly lessens the suspense in some parts of the novel.

As for the writing, Lee Child’s third-person narration is the kind of precise, fast-paced, “matter of fact” narration that you would expect. As thriller novels go, Lee Child’s are some of the most well-written ones that I’ve read and this novel is no exception. The writing never patronises the reader, yet this is the kind of novel which can still be read easily when you’re really tired and/or the weather is annoyingly hot, which is quite an achievement on Lee Child’s part.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. Although it’s about 450 pages long, this is the kind of novel which will take you less time to read than some 300 page books will. In other words, the story is reasonably fast-paced throughout. Seriously, even in the scenes where nothing much happens, the novel still remains pretty gripping.

All in all, whilst this certainly isn’t the best Lee Child novel I’ve read, it’s still an incredibly gripping and compelling novel. Yes, it’s more of a detective thriller novel than an action-thriller novel, but this works surprisingly well. But, if the Jack Reacher novels were a TV show, this one would probably be a low-budget bottle episode. Even so, it’s still one of the better non-sci fi/non-urban fantasy/ non-horror thriller novels I’ve read since I got back into reading regularly a few months ago.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least a four.

Review: “The Dead Dog Day” By Jackie Kabler (Novel)

Well, it’s been a little while since I read a detective novel. So, I thought that that I’d take a look at Jackie Kabler’s 2015 novel “The Dead Dog Day” today. This was a novel that I found in a charity shop in Petersfield last year – mostly on account of the awesome purple/black/gold cover art, the intriguing blurb and the first couple of pages.

So, let’s take a look at “The Dead Dog Day”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS.

This is the 2015 Accent Press (UK) paperback edition of “The Dead Dog Day” that I read.

The story begins in a TV studio in London. The boss of the Morning Live news program, Jeanette Kendricks, is furious. The dog who that was supposed to be featured in the ‘Britain’s Bravest Pets’ segment of the show has just died two hours before the broadcast and no-one thinks that Jeanette’s idea of just pretending that the dog is asleep will actually work.

Whilst all of this is going on, one of the show’s newsreaders, Cora Baxter, meets up with the rest of the news team to prepare for the show, chat and have a laugh. However, this isn’t an ordinary day at the office. As that morning’s episode of Morning Live comes to an end, someone murders Jeanette…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, despite the brilliantly funny and compelling beginning, the story takes quite a while to really get started. Although it eventually turns into a fairly compelling, if unconventional, detective thriller novel – don’t expect the kind of sharp, focused storytelling that you’d expect in a traditional detective novel. Even so, this story is a reasonably ok mixture of comedy, drama, romance and mystery.

The detective elements of this story are, as I mentioned, slightly strange. Despite the “A Cora Baxter Mystery” subtitle on the cover, Cora isn’t really that much of a detective. In fact, most of the actual detective work is actually done by a couple of background characters. Cora is more of a character who gets caught up in events surrounding the story’s central mystery – which is why, for example, she doesn’t like discussing the murder in the earlier parts of the story and why there’s so little focus on the mystery during the early and middle parts of the book. Likewise, she’s also more of a “realistic” TV show presenter than a typical “intrepid reporter” protagonist too.

Still, the story’s suspense is just about maintained through a series of smaller mysteries that are sometimes connected to the main mystery in one way or another, such as a mysterious man who seems to be following Cora, a mysterious Twitter conversation, the bizarre behaviour of one of the other newsreaders, a few mysterious descriptions of the murderer planning their next crime, the police’s suspicions about one member of Cora’s camera crew etc…

In addition to this, even though this novel uses some rather corny tricks and tropes, they still work surprisingly well. I mean, at one point, I was certain that I’d guessed who the murderer was after re-reading an early part of the story after seeing a clue, only to find that it was a red herring. Likewise, there’s a gloriously random plot twist or two near the end which should be really corny and contrived, but which still come across as rather dramatic whilst you’re actually reading them.

Even so, the detective elements of the story sometimes feel more like a sub-plot than anything else. Large parts of the story place more emphasis on Cora’s everyday life. And, although this contains a romantic sub-plot, some drama and some comedy – it is sometimes just about Cora’s mundane, ordinary life.

Needless to say, some of these “mundane” segments of the novel (eg: Cora going Christmas shopping etc..) aren’t exactly the most compelling thing in the world (and I even thought about abandoning the book out of boredom at one point). Even so, the story does get a bit more focused and compelling as it progresses – with the comedy, romance and drama elements often helping to keep many of the non-detective parts of the story fairly interesting. Even so, the middle parts of this story could have probably done with a bit of trimming.

The novel’s comedy elements are reasonably interesting. Although the novel only had a few moments that really made me laugh out loud, it contains a reasonably good mixture of slapstick comedy/ farce, satire (about the media industry and broadcast journalism), character-based comedy, silly outfits, immature humour, running jokes (eg: one of Cora’s crew constantly getting popular sayings wrong) etc… These comedy elements also contrast really well with the darker and more suspenseful elements of the story too.

In terms of the characters, there’s a lot of characterisation in this novel. Which is both a good and a bad thing. On the plus side, all of the characterisation helps to add some depth to the story (to the point where even some of the unsympathetic characters become vaguely sympathetic). Likewise, the novel’s cast of characters are all presented as fairly realistic (if somewhat stylised) people with flaws, emotions, motivations etc.. On the downside, all of this characterisation can sometimes distract from the story’s plot a bit.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is written in a reasonably informal and descriptive way. Although this can sometimes come across as a little bit cheesy or corny, it works reasonably well most of the time and the story is fairly readable.

In terms of the length and pacing, this novel is a bit of a mixed bag. At 331 pages in length, it isn’t too long, although trimming about fifty pages or so from the middle of it would probably have made it a lot more focused and streamlined. As for the pacing, it is at it’s best during the gripping beginning and ending of the story. However, the middle parts of this story are far too slow-paced for a story of this type.

All in all, whilst I eventually enjoyed this novel, it wasn’t really the traditional-style detective story I’d expected. Yes, this novel has some funny moments, some romance, some dramatic moments and a few gripping moments. Yes, the story certainly gets better as it continues. However, it isn’t without flaws either. In short, this book would be vastly improved by trimming a few scenes, having better pacing in the middle parts of the story and having a more consistent focus on the central mystery.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a three.

Review: “Dying Words” By Shaun Hutson (Novel)

Shortly after I’d finished reading Shaun Hutson’s “Last Rites“, I wanted to read some more of Hutson’s novels from the 2000s. And, after looking online, I found a cheap second-hand copy of Hutson’s 2006 novel “Dying Words”.

I wasn’t sure if I’d already read this novel back in the day (I probably did), but it intrigued me enough to buy a copy…. which then promptly languished on my “to read” pile for about three months. But, after reading Hilary Mantel’s “Bring Up The Bodies“, I wanted to read something a bit more fast-paced. So, yes, this review is long overdue.

So, let’s take a look at “Dying Words”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS.

This is the 2007 Orbit (UK) paperback edition of “Dying Words” that I read.

The novel begins in London with a high-speed car chase. Detective Inspector David Birch is in pursuit of a serial killer and he’s damned if he’s going to let him go. After leaving a trail of destruction, the killer gets out of his car, draws a knife and flees – cutting down anyone who gets in his way. Birch gives chase. Finally, there is a tense stand-off in an underground station – which ends with Birch gleefully throwing the disarmed killer onto the electrified rails.

Meanwhile, a biographer called Megan Hunter is discussing her latest historical book about a little-known Renaissance thinker called Giacomo Cassano with her editor Frank. Compared to Dante and Caravaggio, no-one has heard of Cassano, and Megan hopes that her book will change this.

Back at the police station, Birch is called to the Commissioner’s office to account for his actions. After giving Birch a scare, the Commissioner eventually decides to turn a blind eye to the serial killer’s suspicious death.

A while later, Birch is called out to investigate a new case. Frank has been brutally murdered, yet there is no evidence of anyone else leaving or entering the locked room that he died in…..

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it’s a really brilliant, but intriguingly different, Shaun Hutson novel. Although it still contains the horror and thriller elements you’d expect from a Shaun Hutson novel, this novel is actually more of a detective novel most of the time. And this works surprisingly well. Likewise, this novel is also an intriguing piece of metafiction, an awesome heavy metal novel and a wonderfully evocative piece of mid-2000s nostalgia too 🙂

I should probably start by talking about the novel’s detective elements. Apart from the beginning and the ending, this novel mostly takes a fairly “realistic” attitude towards detection, with large parts of the story involving Birch interviewing people, examining crime scenes, talking to other detectives and following up on leads. In a lot of ways, this novel is kind of like a cross between a drama and a gritty police procedural. And, surprisingly, this works really well – with the “locked room mystery” elements also helping to add some intrigue to the story too.

Likewise, this novel is also a really good horror novel too. Although it isn’t really that scary, there’s a really brilliant mixture of ultra-gruesome splatterpunk horror, creepy implied horror, suspenseful horror, atmospheric horror, criminal horror, medical horror and some paranormal horror … all of which gradually engulf what initially appears to be a fairly “ordinary” detective story 🙂 Seriously, this is one of the best blendings of the detective and horror genres that I’ve seen in a while.

As mentioned earlier, “Dying Words” is also a work of metafiction too – and it works really brilliantly. Although it initially appears to be a rather cynical satire about the publishing business and about critics (of which I now seem to be one), the novel also covers topics like the power of books, the power of authors and the nature of creativity itself too.

In addition to this, one fun element of the story is that one of the characters is a horror author called Paxton. Although I initially thought that this was an author insert, it’s probably more of a self-parody and/or a parody of the popular image of horror authors. Plus, there’s an absolutely brilliant description of one of Paxton’s books being launched, which is wonderfully evocative of the genre’s heyday in the 1970s-90s (which, sadly, I only discovered belatedly via second-hand books during the ’00s).

This novel is also a brilliant piece of mid-2000s nostalgia too 🙂 Everything from the cynical description of a “misery memoir”, to some of the fashions (eg: Megan’s boho chic outfit in one scene), to the general atmosphere of the story, to the vaguely “Silent Hill 3“-style settings in one part of the novel, to the mentions of CDs/DVDs, to the blissful absence of smartphones etc… is gloriously reminiscent of an era of history that popular nostalgia hasn’t quite reached yet.

So, if you miss the mid-2000s (and, back then, I never thought that I’d say those words… Wow, the present day sucks!), then this novel is well worth reading for nostalgia alone.

This novel is also a heavy metal novel too 🙂 In addition to some utterly brilliant Iron Maiden references (especially to this song) that are integrated into the story in a really cool way, there are also possible references to Judas Priest’s “Electric Eye” and Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” too 🙂 Seriously, it’s always brilliant to read a novel by an author with such good taste in music \m/ 🙂 \m/

In terms of the characters, they’re reasonably good and they all come across as fairly realistic – if somewhat stylised – people. Although, like in Hutson’s “Last Rites”, many of the characters have tragic backstories – this element isn’t emphasised quite as much in this novel, which helps to stop the story’s emotional tone from becoming too bleak or depressing (still, don’t expect a cheerful tale. This is a Shaun Hutson novel, after all).

In terms of the writing, the novel’s third-person narration is a really interesting mixture of the more descriptive (and slightly formal) style that Hutson used in his classic 1980s horror novels and the faster, grittier and more “matter of fact” style that he used in his 1990s/2000s thriller novels. Still, this novel mostly tends be more like a classic-style Hutson novel in terms of the writing.

Interestingly, this novel only partially includes some of Hutson’s trademark phrases though (eg: the word “cleft” appears, but I didn’t notice the word “liquescent” anywhere). Still, it includes the brilliant description “mucoid snorting” at one point.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At 357 pages in length, this novel doesn’t feel that much longer than Hutson’s classic 1980s fiction. The novel’s pacing is handled in a really interesting way too. Both the beginning and ending are as fast-paced as a good thriller novel, whereas the pacing of the rest of the novel is much closer to that of a horror or detective novel. This contrast works really well, since it helps to build suspense and make the thrilling segments of the novel even more fast-paced by comparison 🙂

All in all, this is a brilliantly enjoyable novel 🙂 Yes, it’s a bit different to pretty much every other Shaun Hutson novel, but at the same time it is also very much a Hutson novel. If you want a really interesting mixture of the detective, thriller and horror genres, if you want some intriguing metafiction or if you’re just feeling nostalgic for the mid-2000s, then this novel is definitely worth reading 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a five.