Review: “Making Wolf” By Tade Thompson (Novel)

Well, to my delight, I found myself in the mood for reviewing novels again a couple of days before I prepared this review a few months ago 🙂 Although I’m not sure how many I’ll review this time round [Edit: I’ll review four novels, including this one], I thought that I’d start with Tade Thompson’s 2015 hardboiled detective thriller novel “Making Wolf”.

This novel was a birthday present from a family member and it was something that I was eager to read after enjoying Thompson’s “Rosewater” sci-fi trilogy a few months ago (You can find my reviews of these books here, here and here). Seriously, it has been way too long since I last read a novel.

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

This is the 2020 Constable (UK) paperback edition of “Making Wolf” that I read.

“Making Wolf” begins with a man called Weston Kogi taking a plane from London to a fictional West African country called Alcacia for his aunt’s funeral. His aunt helped him to flee the country during a civil war fifteen years earlier and he is wary about returning, even for just a couple of days.

At the funeral, Weston runs into his old girlfriend Nana, who – to his surprise – is still very much in love with him. He also meets a man called Church who bullied him when they were at school. When Church asks Weston about his life, Weston tells him that he is a homicide detective for the Metropolitan Police. There is a reception after the funeral, and Weston ends up drinking with Church and his friends for a while before suddenly passing out.

When Weston wakes up, he finds himself in a hut on the outskirts of a remote camp. After exploring the area and witnessing a grisly execution, several local rebels point their guns at him. Church shows up and tells Weston that he works for the Liberation Front Of Alcacia (LFA) and that they need his police experience to “impartially” investigate the murder of a respected local politician called Papa Busi, with the hope of pinning the crime on a rival group called the People’s Christian Army (PCA).

Given $10,000 in expenses and quickly realising that he doesn’t really have much of a choice and can’t leave the country, Weston reluctantly agrees to investigate. Soon, the PCA gets in touch with him too and offers him $15,000 in expenses, especially if he pins the crime on the LFA. Of course, there is one small problem with all of this – Weston was just trying to impress Church when he said he was a homicide detective. In reality, he is a security guard for a supermarket…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a brilliantly compelling and atmospheric hardboiled detective thriller novel that also has a wonderfully cynical sense of humour too. If you are a fan of Thompson’s “Rosewater” novels, then you will probably enjoy this one too. Yes, it doesn’t contain any sci-fi elements – but it still contains the kind of detailed worldbuilding, compelling narration and complex thriller plot that you’d expect 🙂

In terms of the novel’s detective elements, this is a hardboiled detective novel. Not only is there a complex web of crime and villainy in the background (although, unlike some classic hardboiled novels, this one has a slightly more streamlined plot), but Weston is very much a reluctant detective in a dangerous situation who has to rely on his wits in order to solve the case.

Most of his investigation consists of interviews, research, bribery, threats, logical deductions and the occasional bit of snooping. In classic hardboiled fashion, Weston is very much a cynic – who also ends up becoming at least somewhat morally-ambiguous as the story progresses. The investigation is also kept compelling thanks to the fact that Weston can never quite be sure about who he can trust too. Plus, as you’d expect from a more modern hardboiled novel, there are many violent and/or grim moments that are presented in a “messy” and “ugly” – rather than “thrilling” or “cool-looking”- kind of way.

This brings me on to the novel’s thriller elements, which are expertly blended with the detective plot and help to add a lot of extra speed and suspense to the novel. Although there are a couple of fast-paced fight scenes, this novel is much more of a traditional suspense thriller – with Weston “out of his depth” and stuck in a dangerous catch-22 situation, a character mysteriously vanishing (in a way that the reader notices before Weston does), a couple of plot twists, several scenes where Weston is threatened and a rapid increase in political tensions within Alcacia. Needless to say, all of this suspense really helps to keep the plot moving at a decent pace.

One other cool element of this novel are the comedy elements. Although the later parts of the story are more on the serious side of things, this novel contains lots of hilariously cynical comedy. For starters, the novel’s premise seems like the perfect set-up for a farce and at least a few parts of the novel are evocative of this style of comedy, albeit often in a more gritty and/or violent way than you might expect from a typical farce.

For example, one grim running joke is that Weston is given a gun by Church for protection – but, every time he tries to use it, something always goes wrong. He misses, the gun jams, or – in one vaguely “Pulp Fiction” style moment – he accidentally shoots both himself and someone else at the same time. If you have even a slightly grim, cynical and/or twisted sense of humour, then you’ll enjoy this novel 🙂

In addition to all of this, there are just so many brilliantly cynical asides, details, comments, dialogue segments and other subtle comedic moments too. If you enjoyed the occasional humourous moments in Thompson’s “Rosewater” novels, or enjoy “edgy” hardboiled comedy novels like Warren Ellis’ “Crooked Little Vein”, then you’ll enjoy the humour here. This humour not only helps to balance out a lot of the novel’s many horrific and grim moments, but is also often cynical enough to add to the story’s slightly dystopian atmosphere at the same time too. Whilst this isn’t an outright comedy novel, there are a surprisingly large number of comedic moments here and they really help to add a lot of personality and uniqueness to the story.

The novel’s setting is really atmospheric and detailed too, which helps to add intrigue, personality and a feeling of realism to the novel. This setting also allows Thompson to explore a number of different themes, such as emigration, colonialism, racism, corruption, extremism and post-colonial mistrust of western governments too.

In terms of the characters, they are really good. The bulk of the novel’s characterisation focuses on Weston – who, whilst being a typical cynical hardboiled detective, also experiences a lot of character development throughout the novel. He goes from being an inexperienced “out of his depth” character to being a much more knowledgeable, cynical and morally-ambiguous character as the story progresses. This progression is handled really well and comes across as very realistic. In addition to this, another element of his character development is how he goes from absolutely hating Alcacia when he arrives to eventually preferring it to London (and his name, which sounds similar to “Western”, is probably part of this theme too).

The novel’s supporting characters are often interesting, frightening and/or quirky in one way or another, with Weston’s uneasy friendship with Church being one of the more dramatic parts of the novel. Although the supporting characters don’t get quite as much characterisation as Weston does, they are well-written enough to feel like interesting people with realistic motivations and backstories. Likewise, the slight quirkiness of many characters is also used as a brilliant source of subtle comedy and/or horror throughout the novel too.

As for the writing, it is really good 🙂 As you would expect from a hardboiled novel, this novel’s first-person narration is mostly written in a fairly “matter of fact” way that keeps the story moving at a reasonable pace, whilst also giving everything a bit of personality and a more cynical and “realistic” atmosphere too. This is also paired with Thompson’s distinctive writing style and imagination, which will be familiar to fans of his “Rosewater” novels, and it is an absolute joy to read 🙂 Seriously, I loved the narration here 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is excellent 🙂 At an efficient 259 pages in length, not a single page is wasted and this is the kind of novel that can be easily enjoyed in just a couple of days 🙂 Likewise, the novel’s pacing is absolutely stellar too. Not only is there a good contrast between the faster-paced suspense thriller elements and the slightly slower detective elements, but they both balance each other out to tell a story that moves quickly enough to remain compelling, but slowly enough to give you time to think about everything and appreciate the atmosphere. Yes, the beginning and ending are slightly faster than the middle – and the chapter length varies a bit – but this is still a really gripping and well-paced novel.

All in all, if you want a compelling and unique hardboiled detective thriller novel, then you will probably enjoy this one. Not only does it have a gripping main plot, but it also contains a really good mixture of hilariously cynical comedy and more serious moments too. Likewise, although it doesn’t contain any sci-fi elements, it is still well worth reading if you enjoyed Thompson’s “Rosewater” novels too. Plus, fans of Warren Ellis’ detective novels might also enjoy this one too.

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

Review: “A Matter Of Blood” By Sarah Pinborough (Novel)

Well, to my surprise, I found myself in the mood for horror fiction again 🙂 So, I thought that I’d take a look at a novel that I’ve been meaning to read for a while – I am, of course, talking about Sarah Pinborough’s 2010 novel “A Matter Of Blood”. Seriously, it has been way too long since I last read a Sarah Pinborough novel.

Although this novel is the first novel in Pinborough’s “The Dog-Faced Gods” (or, in US editions, “The Forgotten Gods”) trilogy, it works reasonably well as a stand-alone book too. Yes, there are some subtle set-ups for the sequels here – but the novel’s main story is reasonably self-contained.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “A Matter Of Blood”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS.

This is the 2010 Gollancz (UK) paperback edition of “A Matter Of Blood” that I read.

Set in a dystopian version of early-mid 2020s London, the novel begins with a mysterious scene showing an unnamed man finding the gruesome remains of an activist called John MacBrayne. Flies rise from the body and briefly form a human shape. The man argues with the flies for a while before they disperse. With a weary sigh, he makes a phone call and begins the process of covering up the death.

We then see a hardboiled detective called Cass Jones being called out to a grisly crime scene in dilapidated block of flats. A local woman called Carla Rae is the latest victim of the serial killer that Cass and his team have been chasing with little success. After talking to the medical examiner and leaving the crime scene, Cass travels to an underground bar to talk to a local gangster and pick up a bribe. On the way home, he ignores a mysterious phone call from his brother but picks up when his sergeant, Claire May, calls him and tells him to return to the station.

A DVD has been sent to the station. It contains grainy silent footage of a drive-by shooting that the team have also been investigating. The team study the harrowing footage, but it doesn’t tell them much that they don’t already know. Cass returns home and spends some time with his wife- Kate – before the two begin to argue again. Angered, he leaves the house and has a cocaine-fuelled night out that ends with him falling asleep in a supermarket car park and having a nightmare about an undercover operation that went terribly wrong.

Sometime later, Cass learns that his brother has been found shot dead alongside his family. Whilst still reeling from this shocking news and trying to keep up with the two cases, Cass not only learns that he is considered a suspect in his brother’s death and has been suspended on “compassionate leave”, but Kate also leaves him after learning about a past affair he has had. With nothing left to lose, Cass decides to look for some answers…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it was a lot of fun to read 🙂 Although it is as much (or more of) a detective novel as it is a horror novel – if you are a fan of horror authors like Shaun Hutson, Clive Barker and James Herbert, then you’ll probably enjoy this book. It’s a brilliant mixture of grisly paranormal horror and hardboiled modern detective fiction, with a hint of dystopian fiction too 🙂

I should probably start by talking about this novel’s detective elements – which are a combination of modern-style “police procedural” detection and the kind of gritty, morally-ambiguous “loose cannon” detective work that wouldn’t be out of place in an old hardboiled crime novel or possibly one of Shaun Hutson’s crime-themed novels 🙂 This combination of genres works absolutely perfectly, allowing for both the careful perusal of evidence and methodical forensic work typically found in the procedural genre and the more suspenseful, rule-breaking and/or thrilling stuff that you’d expect to see in the hardboiled genre 🙂

In classic detective novel fashion, this story also has two seemingly separate cases that the main character has to investigate – and both of these are handled fairly well. Not only that, as you’d expect from a hardboiled novel, there’s also a rather complicated web of criminal intrigue that allows for a few dramatic plot twists and red herrings too 🙂 Not only that, enough is resolved to give the novel a satisfying sense of closure whilst also asking some larger questions that will presumably be answered in later books in the trilogy.

The novel’s horror elements are absolutely excellent too 🙂 Although they sometimes take a bit of a back seat to the detective elements, they are a constant presence throughout the novel and they consist of an expert mixture of gory horror, paranormal horror, ghost horror, bleak horror, conspiracy horror, suspense, economic horror, death/mourning, psychological horror and character-based horror that help to add a wonderfully grim and macabre atmosphere to the story.

Not only that, like with Pinborough’s excellent “Tower Hill“, this novel takes inspiration from lots of other great horror authors whilst also very much being it’s own thing too 🙂 There’s the extreme gore and bleak cynicism of a Shaun Hutson novel, the dark fantasy and conspiratorial dread of something like Clive Barker’s “The Damnation Game” and even a few atmospheric rural and/or ghostly moments that wouldn’t be entirely out of place in a James Herbert novel. Yet, all of these elements are melded into something that is very distinctively a Sarah Pinborough novel at the same time. This is so cool 🙂

Earlier, I mentioned that this novel also contains some dystopian fiction elements and these are handled really well. For most of the novel, they are more of a subtle background thing – which lends the story a surprisngly “realistic” atmosphere. Written shortly after the 2008 financial crash, this novel is a bitter satire of capitalism and an eerily prescient – if exaggerated- prediction of the austerity measures that would be introduced by the 2010 Coalition government.

Set in the early-mid 2020s, this novel takes place in a version of Britain where the NHS has almost been dismantled, where large corporations have a lot more power, where police funding cuts have led to widespread (and tacitly accepted) corruption, where the government has reintroduced the death penalty and where everything is just a little bit more run-down, gritty and mean. When I prepared the first draft of this review in February, I was ready to write these predictions off as “wrong and exaggerated, but presented in a ‘realistic’ way”. Going over this review again a few weeks before publication, this novel feels even more eerily prescient given all of the dystopian stuff that has happened since then.

This novel also has a really interesting theme of destiny and free will too. Although this is left slightly ambiguous in some parts (and is probably a subtle set-up for the sequels), the tension between these two things is handled in a really clever way and it also links in to the story’s theme of religion too. There are a surprisingly large number of scenes set inside churches or religious buildings and several characters’ philosophical beliefs have a major impact on the events of the story too. This also allows for some clever parallels between Cass and the killer too – with both of them believing that people’s choices determine everything, but acting on this cynical worldview in slightly different ways.

In terms of the characters, they are really good 🙂 Cass gets most of the novel’s characterisation and he’s the kind of gruff and morally-ambiguous hardboiled London detective who wouldn’t be entirely out of place in a Shaun Hutson novel 🙂 But, in addition to this, he also has a lot of depth too – in addition to a few mysterious parts of his past and a rather troubled personal life, he’s also racked by guilt over a botched undercover investigation several years earlier and is the kind of character who would probably be a criminal if he wasn’t a detective. Yet, he is still a surprisingly sympathetic character throughout the novel thanks to both the level of emotional depth given to him and the fact that, compared to some of the more villainous characters, he’s still a relatively “good” character.

Although many of the other characters don’t get quite as much characterisation, they still feel like very distinctive and realistic people with backstories, quirks, motivations and flaws too. Not only that, this novel also contains some absolutely excellent villains too. In addition to some loathesome and/or tragic characters, the novel’s most chilling antagonists are well-written enough for us to get a sense of who they are and why they are doing what they are doing, but are also intriguingly mysterious enough to keep us feeling curious after the novel has finished (again, probably because this novel is part of a trilogy).

As for the writing, it is excellent. This novel’s third-person narration is mostly written in the kind of gritty and “matter of fact” way that fits in really well with the hardboiled atmosphere, whilst also keeping everything moving at a reasonable pace too. And, as you’d expect from a horror novel, there are also some well-placed descriptive and/or formal moments that help to add atmosphere, horror and/or suspense too. I tried to avoid making another Shaun Hutson comparison here, but this novel’s writing style really does feel like an enhanced version of the style used in some of Hutson’s more modern novels from the past two decades sometimes 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is reasonably good. At 419 pages in length, this novel feels very much like a modern novel and is probably a fair length for the story it is telling. Likewise, although you shouldn’t expect an ultra-fast paced story, the story still moves at the kind of reasonably decent pace that you’d expect to find in a modern “procedural” detective novel, a 1980s horror novel or possibly a traditional-style thriller novel. Plus, although this novel is clearly the first part of a trilogy and there are some clear set-ups for sequels, the story thankfully has enough resolution to still “work” reasonably well on it’s own.

All in all, this novel was really cool 🙂 If you’re a fan of horror authors like Shaun Hutson, Clive Barker, James Herbert etc.. and are also a fan of the detective genre too, then you’ll enjoy this one 🙂 Yes, it’s sometimes more of a hardboiled/procedural detective thriller novel than anything else, but the expertly-written horror and dystopian fiction elements really make it stand out from the crowd 🙂

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

Review: “Stone Cold Heart” By Caz Frear (novel)

Well, although I’d planned to read a cyberpunk novel today, I found that I just couldn’t “get into” it after reading a couple of chapters. So, worried about losing interest in reading again, I needed to find something gripping to read and quickly. And, whilst looking through my “to read” piles, I happened to spot a copy of Caz Frear’s 2019 detective novel “Stone Cold Heart”. Since I’ve been meaning to read this book ever since a relative won it in a competition and then gave it to me (since it was more of my sort of novel), this seemed like the perfect opportunity.

I should probably also point out that this novel seems to be the sequel to another novel called “Sweet Little Lies”, but it works very well as a stand-alone novel. Yes, one of the sub-plots may seem a little mysterious or confusing at first – but there are enough recaps for it to eventually make sense, not to mention that the novel’s main plot is also very much a self-contained story too.

So, let’s take a look at “Stone Cold Heart”. This review may contain mild-moderate SPOILERS, but I’ll avoid revealing whodunnit.

This is the 2019 Zaffre (UK) paperback edition of “Stone Cold Heart” that I read.

The novel begins with a brief and mysterious segment showing someone musing about the emotional effects of committing murder. The story then begins in August 2017 and we follow DC Cat Kinsella as she visits a cafe in London called “The Grindhouse” to buy coffee for the other detectives on Murder Investigation Team 4. However, shortly after she gets the coffee, the cafe owner starts calling after her. Disconcerted that he knows her name, she tries to ignore him for a few seconds before eventually deciding to talk to him. He tells her that his wife has been threatening him and asks her if she can do anything about it. Sensing that it is a complicated domestic dispute – where both sides are probably at fault – Cat gives him some fairly bland advice and then leaves quickly.

Three months later, Cat and her partner Parnell are called out to a housing estate called Coronation Gardens after a twenty-two year old woman called Naomi Lockheart has been found dead by her housemate, Keiran. The broken glass, bruises and head injuries clearly point to murder and there is no sign of a break-in either. Since he lived with Naomi and has a fairly long criminal record, Keiran is the most likely suspect – but he has an alibi for the night in question.

Following up on the investigation, Cat learns that Naomi went to a party hosted by her boss, Kirstie, several hours before she died. Further investigations into Naomi’s job uncover evidence that points to a man called Joseph Madden being the prime suspect. After he is arrested, Cat is surprised to find that not only is he Kirstie’s brother-in-law, but that he is also the cafe owner who talked to her three months earlier.

But, although the station’s psychologist points out that Joseph probably has narcissistic personality disorder and all of the background information Cat finds shows that he is clearly a very horrible person- he protests his innocence and claims that he is being framed. Is he actually being framed or is he lying?

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a very compelling and well-written modern “police procedural”-style detective novel that was better than I’d initially expected it to be. Although procedurals aren’t really my favourite type of detective story, this is the kind of gripping, gritty and well-plotted novel which I found more and more difficult to put down whenever I read it.

In terms of the novel’s detective elements, they’re absolutely excellent. The novel contains a good mixture of forensics, questions and logical deductions – with an emphasis on finding evidence that is good enough to stand up in court. Although a lot of the story focuses on Cat talking to people informally, following leads and thinking about the case – the highlights of the story are probably the dramatic interview room scenes, which often feel like a thrillingly suspenseful battle of wits between Cat and whoever she is questioning. These moments also really feel like a shot of adrenaline after the story’s more contemplative and cerebral moments too.

The story’s central mystery is a rather well-constructed one with a couple of sub-plots and several plot twists (some guessable, some genuinely surprising) that all make perfect logical sense when everything is revealed at the end of the story. All of the suspects are complicated morally-ambiguous characters who could easily be guilty and you’re kept guessing up until fairly late into the story. Seriously, I cannot praise this element of the plot highly enough. Although the case isn’t the kind of ultra-complex “I need to take notes!” thing you’d expect to find in an old Raymond Chandler novel, there are enough twists and complexity to make it feel like a more modern update of this type of hardboiled detective story.

And, yes, this novel has clearly taken inspiration from older hardboiled novels. Although I’d initially planned to criticise this novel for being “too miserable”, I suddenly realised that Frear was writing a modern version of the kind of tragic and gritty realism that was a mainstay of the hardboiled genre in its heyday. Whilst the trench-coats and historical settings provide some much-needed emotional distance if you read those older novels today, seeing this type of story transposed to a modern British setting can give you a good idea of how people probably felt whilst reading Chandler, Hammett etc.. in the olden days.

In keeping with the hardboiled genre, most of the main characters not only have a certain degree of moral ambiguity and fallibility, but many of them also have very messy and realistic motivations for their actions. This is a novel about humanity at its worst and most tragic, yet this element of the story is kept understated enough to feel chillingly and grimly “realistic”. Likewise, even the more “complex” or “calculated” parts of the plot still just fall within what people might realistically do in extreme situations. So, yes, this novel takes a lot of influence from the hardboiled crime genre 🙂

Still, it is primarily a police procedural novel and these elements are very well-handled too. Not only are the police characters fairly well-written, but the fact that Cat is part of a team is something that both helps and hinders her at various points in the story. Whilst she sometimes gets crucial clues from forensics at key moments and can also rely on her partner Parnell to help her out, she also has to risk getting into trouble with her boss sometimes and has to keep various secrets (which form a rather dramatic and suspenseful sub-plot) too. Likewise, since Cat is an official detective, she also has to be conscious about how everything will play out in court too.

This novel also includes a few elements from the thriller genre too. This mostly takes the form of various suspenseful story elements – such as the fact that the police only have four days to find enough evidence to bring criminal charges against Jospeh in the earlier parts of the novel, or the scenes involving Cat having to deal with various people from her past and keep various secrets. In addition to this, the story’s pacing and gradually increasing intensity wouldn’t be entirely out of place in a thriller novel either.

In terms of the characters, they’re really well-written and feel like fairly realistic people. Almost all of the characters in this novel have flaws and/or secrets that add extra mystery, tragedy and/or suspense to the story, yet you’ll probably end up feeling empathy – and perhaps even a small amount of sympathy – with many of them.

Being the narrator, Cat gets the bulk of the story’s characterisation and not only does this make her a more compelling character but it also allows for a few brief (and much-needed) moments of subtle humour, in addition to emphasising her difficult struggle between loyalty and duty during various moments too. In addition to this, Joseph is also a brilliantly chilling character too – who is manipulative and narcissistic enough to be genuinely frightening, yet understated and “realistic” enough not to feel like a moustache-twirling cartoon either. Seriously, the characters are one of the main things that make this novel so grimly compelling to read.

The writing is fairly good too – with Cat’s first-person narration being delivered in a slightly informal and “matter of fact” way that fits in perfectly with the kind of gritty, modern detective story that is being told. Taking a few hints from the thriller genre, this is also a novel that focuses slightly more on dialogue, thoughts and events than on descriptions – although the novel still manages to be reasonably atmospheric too.

Yes, the choice to set the story in London isn’t exactly the most adventurous one in the world – but it feels like a fairly “realistic” and atmospheric setting and the novel keeps things interesting by focusing on both the richer and poorer areas of the city too. Not only that, the novel also includes a brief segment set in Portsmouth too 🙂

Seriously, the only other example of a novel that includes scenes set in Portsmouth I can think of at the moment is C.J.Sansom’s “Heartstone“. Not only that, this is also a fairly well-researched segment of the story – with the only possible exception being a local character calling Paulsgrove “the Paulsgrove”, instead of just “Paulsgrove” – still, the segments set in Portsmouth were really awesome to see 🙂

As for length and pacing, this novel is really good. Although it is a rather hefty 471 pages in length, the “matter of fact” narration and clever pacing mean that it never really feels “too long”. Although you shouldn’t expect an ultra-fast story, this novel makes expert use of suspense, mystery and a mildly fast-paced writing style to keep things gripping. This is one of those novels that becomes more and more compelling as it goes along, not to mention that there’s also a good contrast between slightly slower moments and more suspenseful/dramatic/fast-paced police interview scenes too. So, this is almost as much of a thriller as it is a traditional detective story 🙂 Likewise, although the novel includes a very clear – and dramatic – sequel hook/cliffhanger at the end, the fact that this involves a sub-plot rather than the main plot helps to ensure that this novel’s conclusion still feels satisfying on a dramatic novel.

All in all, this is a better book than I’d expected. If you want a gripping modern “police procedural” novel that also takes some influence from the hardboiled genre and has excellent characterisation and plotting, then this one is well worth taking a look at. Even though procedurals aren’t my favourite type of detective novel and this isn’t exactly a “feel-good” kind of detective story either, it was still the kind of book where I found myself eagerly turning the pages in order to learn “whodunnit?”

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

Review: “The River King” By Alice Hoffman (Novel)

Well, although I’d originally planned to read a different novel, I found that I wasn’t really in the mood for it. So, after frantically searching my book piles for something else to read, I eventually decided to take a look at Alice Hoffman’s 2000 novel “The River King”.

If I remember rightly, I ended up buying a second-hand copy of this book online shortly after I finished reading Hoffman’s “Turtle Moon” but I never got round to reading it at the time and forgot about it. So, when I happened to find it at the bottom of one of my book piles, it really felt like buried treasure 🙂

Anyway, let’s take a look at “The River King”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2002 Vintage (UK) paperback edition of “The River King” that I read.

The novel begins with a description of the Massachussetts town of Haddan. Built beside a river, the town has had problems with flooding and damp ever since it was founded. Not to mention that, after a prestigious private boarding school was built in the 19th century, the town has been starkly divided between the richer people from the school and the poorer people who live near it. We then learn a bit about some of the tragic history and urban legends that the school has picked up over the years.

Betsy Chase, a slightly awkward and quirky woman, moves to Haddan to teach photography because her fiance, Eric, is a history teacher at the school. When she arrives in town, she constantly keeps getting lost and finds that she is very much a stranger in a strange land.

Sometime later, a teenager called Carlin Leander takes the train to school. Carlin comes from a poorer family in Florida and is both nervous and eager about starting school, hoping for both a better life and a chance to reinvent herself. On the journey, she meets a strange trench coat-wearing rebel called Gus Pierce who tries to impress her with a magic trick – which has the opposite effect. But, despite their bad first impressions, the two end up becoming friends after realising that they don’t fit in at the boarding school.

Yet, it isn’t long before things begin to take a turn for the worse and, eventually, local detectives Abel “Abe” Grey and Joey Tosh find a dead body in the river. Although Joey and the police chief are eager to write the death off as accidental and/or self-inflicted, Abe insists on investigating more thoroughly…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is unique, atmospheric and memorable in the way only an Alice Hoffman novel can be 🙂 If you are a fan of TV shows like “Twin Peaks” or if you want a quirky and surprisingly dark mixture of dystopian fiction, literary fiction, detective fiction, magical realism and drama that is written in an unsettlingly beautiful and poetic way, then read this novel. It is a complicated, mature and thoroughly human story that is both grimly bleak and yet oddly heartwarming at the same time.

Even though “The River King” probably isn’t – strictly speaking – a dystopian novel or a horror novel, it certainly takes influence from these genres. But, although this story includes a lot of very dark subject matter and some rather disturbing moments, this is paired with a surprisingly compassionate tone and numerous atmospheric descriptions and moments of warmth that keep the story compelling without ever really detracting from the waking nightmare that some of the characters experience. If you were someone who wasn’t popular or didn’t fit in when you were at school, then the earlier parts of this novel will be a more chilling piece of dystopian fiction than anything written by Orwell, Huxley, Atwood etc… can be. And, yet, you probably won’t want to stop reading. This book is that well-written.

In terms of the novel’s detective elements, they’re really interesting. Because Hoffman spends about a third of the novel building up to to the shocking death, the investigation into it has a level of dramatic weight that you won’t find in a more traditional detective novel.

In classic detective genre fashion, Abe finds himself investigating the case pretty much alone – but, unusually, the case is resolved through an extended flashback sequence (from the perspective of an omniscient narrator) and a moment of intuition. Although this shouldn’t work in theory, it somehow does in practice – and allows for a surprisingly shocking, powerful and dramatic final act that brings closure and justice to the case in an unusual way that is still somehow satisfying on a dramatic level. So, even though detective fiction purists might not like it, this novel’s break from tradition works astonishingly well.

The novel’s atmosphere is really interesting too. Haddan is a breathtakingly beautiful and magical place, but also an eerily haunted and cursed town too. It is filled with beautiful natural scenery, yet riven by class divisions and brimming with secrets. The town’s school is both a prestigious boarding school for teenagers and also something like a nightmarish version of the universities that turn up in old American comedy movies like “Animal House” and “Revenge Of The Nerds” – giving the ominous feeling that the younger characters are out of their depth. Not to mention that, in true “Twin Peaks” fashion, this novel also expertly contrasts quirky small-town friendliness with lots of tragic history and dark secrets too.

Plus, since it was first published in 2000, this novel was probably written in the late 1990s – and it is strongly evocative of the atmosphere of the time. In fact, the segments involving Gus could have possibly been something of a gentle riposte to the post-Columbine fears that gripped America during the late 1990s- with Gus being a sympathetic and peaceful character, rather than a violent monster. Although this real world historical context is never actually mentioned in the book, it is impossible not to be impressed by the skill, humanity and subtly subversive thoughtfulness that Hoffman uses to comment on this sensitive topic indirectly.

Thematically, this is a novel about truth, death, corruption, class, guilt and love. All of these themes are handled in a brilliantly subtle and seamless way that feels both starkly realistic and dream-like at the same time. There are numerous clever details and plot elements in this story – like how Abe’s name is both a reference to “honest Abe” Lincoln and to Cain and Abel, both summing up his attitude towards corruption and his misplaced guilt about his brother’s death. Plus, as you’d expect in an Alice Hoffman novel, love is presented as an eerily obsessive thing that can cause people to act out of character and can even extend beyond the grave too.

Most of all though, this is a novel about not fitting in. It is a story where most of the main characters are misfits who have to make their way in a world that is bewildering or even hostile towards them. This is a novel that horrifies and reassures in equal measure, never shying away from the bad parts of being a misfit but also showing the good sides of it too. Interestingly, this is also a novel that focuses on both teenage and adult misfits too, showing that it is more than just a “phase”. Likewise, in a brilliantly subversive touch, most of the novel’s more villainous characters are the most ordinary, respectable, popular etc… ones. Not to mention that this is also a general fiction novel that perfectly captures the weirdness of being a teenager in the kind of unvarnished way that “YA” novels can only dream of.

The novel’s characters are, in a word, exquisite. As you would expect from an Alice Hoffman novel, there is a lot of well-crafted characterisation and character development here. The characters in this novel are both intriguingly stylised and yet very realistic at the same time. Almost everyone has a tragic past, a dark secret, a feeling of guilt and/or some level of moral ambiguity and all of these things have a profound and realistic effect on the characters too, allowing for lots of drama. Hoffman also presents the characters with a surprising amount of compassion, which leads to all sorts of surprisingly powerful moments that can really catch you off-guard. This is very much a character-driven story and it absolutely excels in this regard 🙂

As you would also expect from an Alice Hoffman novel, the writing here is absolutely stellar. The novel’s third-person narration is written in Hoffman’s distinctive style and, along with the characters, is one of the things that makes this novel such a joy to read. The narration here flows absolutely perfectly, being both vividly poetic/descriptive and “matter of fact” at the same time whilst also blending formal and informal narration in a perfectly seamless way.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. At a fairly efficient 324 pages in length, this novel never feels bloated or rushed. Likewise, the novel’s story just flows in a way that feels absolutely right – it is neither fast-paced nor slow-paced, yet the pacing feels perfectly natural for the story that is being told. In addition to this, the novel also uses a rather interesting structure that helps to keep everything compelling – the first third of the novel is basically dystopian fiction in disguise, before the story seamlessly slips into the detective and literary/drama genres in a really gripping way.

All in all, this review probably hasn’t done this novel justice. It is something you have to experience for yourself. If you want an atmospheric and intelligent story with superb writing and characters that is both incredibly bleak and incredibly beautiful at the same time, then read this book. Likewise, if you’re a fan of “Twin Peaks” and want something vaguely like it that is also very much it’s own thing too, then read this book. It is the kind of memorable and powerful story that you won’t find anywhere other than in an Alice Hoffman novel.

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

Review: “The Affair” By Lee Child (Novel)

Well, although I’d planned to review another hardboiled sci-fi novel next, the one I’d chosen didn’t seem to be anywhere near as good as I’d hoped it would be – and I ended up abandoning it after about ten pages. So, I needed to read another novel, a better novel. Quick!

And, since I was still in the mood for thriller fiction, I thought that it’d be the perfect time to take a look at one of the few Lee Child novels I hadn’t read before. I am, of course, talking about Lee Child’s 2011 novel “The Affair” (which I’ve been meaning to read ever since a family member gave me a copy of it several years ago).

Although this novel is both a prequel and part of a large series, it is – like almost every Lee Child novel – designed be read as a stand-alone novel. So, you can enjoy it if you haven’t read any other “Jack Reacher” novels before this one. But, if you have, then there might be a few familiar names and references that you’ll enjoy.

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

This is the 2011 Bantam (UK) paperback edition of “The Affair” that I read.

The novel begins on the 11th March 1997, with a US military policeman called Jack Reacher arriving at the Pentagon for a meeting with a colonel called Frazer. As he goes through security, he expects to be arrested. No-one arrests him. But, as he heads towards Frazer’s office, he’s certain that there is a team of people following him. He has expected something like this. But, no-one follows him and he arrives at the office ten minutes late. Frazer asks Reacher for the name of the suspect he has found.

Reacher says that he has nothing. That the meeting was nothing but an elaborate ruse to draw the culprit out into the open. That he’d hoped someone would have tried to make a move against him before he arrived. Frazer asks if he’s a suspect. Reacher lies about the answer. Frazer laughs and points out that Reacher looks a bit dishevelled. Reacher says that he is supposed to look like this.

Then we flash back to five days earlier. Reacher has been summoned by his CO, Leon Garber, who criticises him for not meeting uniform regulations before pointing out that his scruffy hair is probably a good thing. A woman called Janice May Chapman has been murdered in a small town in Mississipi called Carter Crossing, a small town with a large army ranger base nearby. Although Reacher expects to be lead investigator on the case, the job goes to another officer called Munro.

Reacher’s role in the case is to enter the town undercover and keep tabs on the local police, in the hope of pre-empting or averting any kind of army-related scandal before it happens. So, he hitchhikes to the town, but the local sheriff – Elizabeth Devereaux – is a former military police officer and guesses why he’s there shortly after meeting him. Still, with only two deputies – and no trained detectives- in the town, she reluctantly agrees to let him help her investigate the case…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that this is a really compelling historical detective novel, with some thriller elements too. In other words, it’s probably closer in style to one of the more understated modern Reacher novels, like “The Midnight Line“, rather than the older novels in the series. And, as long as you don’t expect an action-fest or anything like that, then there’s a rather gripping mystery to be enjoyed here.

So, I’ll start by talking about the novel’s detective elements. This novel is a bit like a blend between a thriller, a police procedural and a hardboiled novel. Not only does the case quickly expand in size and scope, but there are a good variety of investigative elements too – including examining physical evidence, making deductions from clues, interviewing people and coming up with several clever ruses and schemes to catch the criminal.

In addition to one or two smaller side-mysteries, another thing that really helps to keep the story’s detective elements compelling is the fact that – right up until the late parts of the book – the reader is never entirely sure which one of the two main suspects are guilty, thanks to lots of red herrings and contradictory pieces of evidence (all of which are, of course, explained later). So, it’s one of those stories that will keep you guessing 🙂

Plus, there are also a few hardboiled elements too. Whether it is a clever twist on the idea of a “femme fatale” character, the fact that Reacher is a semi-official investigator (who is breaking orders and technically doesn’t have jurisdiction) or the fact that – instead of arresting anyone – he unflinchingly metes out rough justice to anyone he finds to be guilty of a serious crime, this novel definitely takes a few hints from the classic American crime fiction of the 1920s-50s. Even so, it isn’t really a “film noir” story.

As for the novel’s thriller elements, they’re fairly compelling too 🙂 In addition to a larger-scale sub-plot about Reacher trying to deal with a possible military cover-up, the novel also includes quite a few suspenseful moments and even a couple of fight scenes too. Still, this novel is more of a traditional-style crime/suspense thriller than the kind of action-thriller novel you’d traditionally expect from Lee Child. But, thanks to things like shorter chapters and a fast-paced writing style, this novel moves along as quickly as you’d expect from a modern thriller novel 🙂

The novel’s historical elements are a bit of a mixed bag though. When they are at their best, they reminded me of other modern 1990s-based crime/suspense novels (such as Laura Lippman’s excellent “Sunburn) which keep their 1990s setting fairly understated – with only the absence of things like smartphones etc.. – helping to create the historical atmosphere. This helps to lend the story a feeling of realism, in addition to allowing for more suspense too (thanks to the lack of modern technology etc…).

However, unlike many modern 1990s-set novels, there are a few moments where Reacher “breaks the fourth wall” and talks directly about the 1990s in the past tense, as if he was re-telling the story in the present day. Although these moments help to clarify the historical setting, they will probably break your immersion in the story slightly at the same time. Yes, the idea of an older Reacher reminiscing about his younger days is an interesting narrative device, but this puts a certain amount of distance between the reader and the story.

As for the characters, they’re really good 🙂 Although you shouldn’t expect ultra-deep characterisation, there is enough here to make you care about the characters. Not only is it really interesting to see a slightly younger version of Reacher (and one or two other long-running characters too), but Elizabeth is also a fairly complex and interesting character too.

The relationship between Reacher and Elizabeth is quite well-handled, and it manages to be both realistic and stylised at the same time (not to mention that, for a Reacher novel, it is probably one of the steamier books in the series too). Plus, the US military – with all of it’s foibles, rivalries, contradictions and complexities – is also pretty much a main character in this novel too.

In terms of the writing, it is really good too 🙂 Like with a couple of other Reacher novels, this one is written from a first-person perspective – which allows for a bit of extra characterisation and suspense. And, although Reacher’s occasional asides about the 1990s can be a little immersion-breaking, I cannot fault the actual writing itself. If you’ve ever read a Lee Child novel, then you’ll know that he’s an expert at writing fast-paced, precisely-engineered and streamlined narration that is kind of like a modern version of the hardboiled fiction of the 1920s-50s, and this novel is no exception 🙂

As for length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. The edition I read (which had slightly larger pages) was 427 pages long, and this length seemed to be a good fit for the story. Although this isn’t the fastest-paced Reacher novel I’ve read, the story still moves along at a fairly decent pace – with lots of well-placed plot twists, mini-cliffhangers and suspenseful moments that help to keep everything compelling. Another cool thing about this novel’s pacing is the TV-style “cold open” scene, which adds instant intrigue to the story by giving the reader a tantalising glimpse of events that happen about three-quarters of the way through the novel.

All in all, this is a really good detective novel that also contains some gripping thriller elements too. Although I’d have liked to have seen more of an action-thriller story, this novel was still very enjoyable to read – with a (mostly) well-handled historical setting and a good mixture between investigation and suspense.

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

Review: “Baltimore Blues” By Laura Lippman (Novel)

Well, shortly after enjoying Laura Lippman’s “Sunburn” a couple of months ago, I went online to look for other books by the author and ended up buying a second-hand copy of Lippman’s 1997 detective novel “Baltimore Blues”. And, although I’d originally planned to read it several weeks ago, I got distracted by other books and only happened to rediscover it by accident a couple of days before writing this review.

So, let’s take a look at “Baltimore Blues”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS (but I’ll avoid revealing whodunnit).

This is the 2005 Orion Books (UK) paperback edition of “Baltimore Blues” that I read.

The novel begins in Baltimore, with ex-journalist Tess Monaghan getting up early to go rowing on the Patapsco river. Ever since she was made redundant by the Star and has had to take up a few strange odd jobs, these early-morning rowing trips have become part of her daily routine. And, like every morning, she meets her fitness fanatic friend called Darryl “Rock” Paxton on the water. He insists on racing her to a nearby bridge, before suddenly bursting into tears afterwards.

His fiance, Ava, has been acting strangely recently and he offers to pay Tess to follow her and learn what is going on. Since she needs the money, Tess agrees and starts tailing Ava. After a while, she begins to suspect that Ava is having an affair with prominent local lawyer Michael Abramowitz and confronts her about it. Ava then manages to get her side of the story across to Darryl before Tess can talk to him. And, although Tess is annoyed by this, she considers the matter solved.

The next morning, Tess reads the local paper at her aunt’s bookshop and is shocked to find that Darryl has been accused of murdering Abramowitz. Since Darryl protests his innocence in the matter and because the head of the local sailing club – Tyner- is also his defence lawyer, he asks for Tess’ help with investigating the matter…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, even though the story takes a while to get going, it is a fairly atmospheric and compelling detective novel with hints of both the legal thriller and noir genres too 🙂

So, I should probably start by talking about the detective elements. Since Tess is an unofficial detective, these mostly consist of interviewing people, studying documents and finding inventive ways to sneak into places. She’s also sometimes able to use her connections from her time as a journalist to help her out with various pieces of the case too. Not only does the “unofficial investigator” thing add a bit of suspense to the story, but it is also slightly evocative of the classic private eyes of the noir genre too.

This connection to the noir genre is also enhanced by the nature of the case itself – which also includes a few smaller mysteries, morally ambiguous characters and the kind of sordid web of criminality (including some fairly dark and/or “gritty” subject matter) that you’d expect from the genre. Even so, this isn’t really a traditional noir detective story – but there are definitely some hints of the noir genre during a few parts of the story.

Plus, as mentioned earlier, this novel also includes some elements from the legal thriller genre too. Since the main focus of the story is building a defence case for Darryl, there’s a fair amount of time dedicated to trying to handle the media coverage of the case or trying to find holes in the evidence against him, in addition to worries about whether various pieces of evidence will be admissable or not. Likewise, since the victim is a lawyer, this also adds to the story’s legal thriller elements too.

When it is at it’s best, these legal thriller elements result in some fairly dramatic set pieces (eg: Tess finding a way to distract a group of court reporters etc…) and a brilliantly realistic sense of ambiguity, where the focus isn’t on impartial investigation – but on exonerating a friend who may or may not be guilty. On the flipside, these legal thriller elements can sometimes slow down the story a bit at times, and can seem a little abstract or contrived in comparison to the much more interesting detection-based parts of the novel. Yes, the legal obstacles in the story add a bit of extra suspense or give Tess an excuse to come up with a clever scheme, but they do slow the story down a bit.

The novel is also fairly atmospheric too 🙂 If you’re a fan of movies, TV shows, stories etc… set in 1990s America, then this novel will give you a chance to visit this interesting time and place. In addition to lots of interesting descriptions of Baltimore, this novel also has a fairly distinctive “atmosphere” to it too thanks to both several of the characters and a surprising number of scenes related to food, books, sailing and/or bars. Although some of this atmosphere and drama can slow the story down a bit (especially in the earlier parts), it gives everything a bit more personality and sets this story apart from a typical gritty crime novel.

In terms of the characters, they’re fairly well-written. Although many of the background characters are a quirky mixture of realistic and stylised, Tess is a really interesting protagonist who not only has to grapple with her precarious financial situation and the attitudes of various members of her family, but also still hasn’t quite got over the fact that she is no longer a reporter. She has realistic flaws, quirks and a real sense of personality that make her a fairly compelling and sympathetic character.

Plus, since this novel comes from the 1990s, her opinions are also a much more nuanced and realistic mixture of liberal and conservative ideas than you’d typically find in a modern novel. This also allows for a certain level of subtle irony too. For example, one of the things that really annoys Tess is when other people base their identities around victimhood – yet, her own life has become defined by losing her job as a reporter.

Likewise, in classic film noir fashion, there are also quite a few morally ambiguous and/or downright villainous characters, who will keep you guessing throughout the novel. Plus, one amusing character-related coincidence is that Tess’ on-off boyfriend also shares a name with a well-known British TV presenter, which adds some unintentional comedy to these scenes if you’ve ever watched TV over here.

In terms of the writing, this novel is also fairly well-written. The novel’s third-person narration is “matter of fact” enough to add a bit of pace and realism to the story, whilst also being descriptive and formal enough to add atmosphere, character and depth to everything. Even though this writing style can occasional slow the story down a bit, it means that the novel contains the best elements of both crime/detective thriller fiction and literary fiction.

As for length and pacing, this novel is reasonably good. At a fairly efficient 291 pages in length (albeit with slightly smaller print), this novel really made me miss the days when this sort of length was standard for novels 🙂 The novel’s pacing is also more like a traditional detective story or thriller, with everything gradually rising in intensity throughout the story. Although this means that some early-middle parts of the story can feel a bit slow, they really help to set up the more compelling, eventful and dramatic middle-late parts of the story 🙂

As for how this twenty-three year old novel has aged, it has aged reasonably well. Not only do some elements of the story feel a lot more modern than movies/TV shows from 1997, but the story also has a very recognisable (albeit relatively subtle) “1990s” atmosphere to it, which really helps to add a lot of intrigue to the story. There are also a few amusingly ’90s moments too, such as when a character goes “on-line” to access a “data base”.

Plus, as hinted at earlier, the novel also comes from a more nuanced and less polarised era of history where creative works could easily be both liberal and conservative. This results in a less predictable and slightly grittier story with more complex characters, but may make some moments seem dated when read today.

All in all, this is a really good detective novel 🙂 Yes, it’s a bit slow to get started and doesn’t become seriously compelling until a little way into the story, but it is worth sticking with thanks to the intriguingly complex mystery, the atmosphere, personality and characters. Plus, if you’re a fan of 1990s America, then this novel is worth reading for the setting alone too 🙂

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

Review: “British Bulldog” By Sara Sheridan (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d take a look at a novel that I’ve been meaning to read for years. I am, of course, talking about Sara Sheridan’s 2015 novel “British Bulldog”. I originally ended up buying a second-hand copy of this book shortly after getting a box set of the first three novels in Sheridan’s “Mirabelle Bevan” series for Christmas in 2016. At the time, I’d planned to read all three of them and wanted to have a copy of the fourth ready for when I finished.

But, although I read the first two books (but only reviewed the first one), I wasn’t reading much at the time and it was only after I later read the third and fifth books in the series that I remembered the fourth one. And, yes, this is one of those series where each novel is fairly self-contained (although it’s worth reading the previous three books first in order to get to know the characters a bit better).

So, let’s take a look at “British Bulldog”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS, but I’ll avoid revealing too much.

This is the 2016 Constable (UK) paperback edition of “British Bulldog” that I read.

The novel begins in Brighton in February 1954. Ex-SOE agent turned debt collector Mirabelle Bevan is walking back to the office one evening when she notices a man following her. When he approaches her, he points out that he’s a solicitor who has been trying to find her because she has been mentioned in a will.

An acquaintance from the war, Major Matthew “Bulldog” Bradley, has died and bequeathed Mirabelle one thousand guineas on the condition that she finds information about a man called Philip Caine who Bradley escaped from a POW camp with but became separated from during the escape. Although Mirabelle is initially wary about the case, especially when Bradley’s widow doesn’t want her to investigate it, she soon finds herself tangled in a web of secrecy, intrigue and drama that will take her all the way to Paris….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is really compelling. Not only is the Paris setting a really refreshing change but, in addition to the detective elements that you’d expect, this novel also includes some faster-paced elements from the spy thriller, adventure thriller and suspense thriller genres that really help to add focus and momentum to the story too. Seriously, if you want a good historical thriller novel, then this one is worth reading.

In terms of the novel’s detective elements, they’re reasonably good – with the novel’s central mystery being intriguing enough to keep the story compelling. Given the pre-internet setting and the “cold case” that Mirabelle finds herself investigating, this also means that the novel can include a few scenes involving trawling through libraries and archives for information. Although this might sound boring, it not only allows for the novel to seamlessly add atmospheric background details/information, but the “needle in a haystack” nature of these scenes also helps to add a bit more more suspense to the story too.

But, surprisingly, this is actually slightly more of a thriller novel than a detective novel 🙂 Although the thriller elements only really become prominent during the middle to later parts of the novel, there’s a really great mixture of chases/evasions, spy stuff, suspenseful sneaking around and even a few fast-paced set pieces. In a lot of ways, this novel is a bit like an old-school spy/adventure thriller and, as such, it is probably the most gripping novel I’ve read so far in this series 🙂 Plus, unlike many other novels in the series, there isn’t really a second case for Mirabelle to solve (and the sub-plot is a character-based one instead) – so the story also feels a bit more focused and streamlined too.

All of these thriller elements are also helped by an absolutely wonderful atmosphere too. Not only is this story set during a cold, gloomy time of year but the fact that a good portion of it is set in Paris is a very welcome change too 🙂 Not only does 1950s Paris add a lot of extra atmosphere to the story, but it also allows for a lot of extra characterisation, character-based drama and WW2-related backstory stuff too. This includes stuff about the French Resistance, how everyone wants to forget the war, the fate of wartime collaborators etc… Not only does this stuff add a realistic historical background to the story, but it also helps to add a lot of extra weight and complexity to the novel’s drama elements too.

This novel is also something of a character-based drama too. Not only are Mirabelle’s conflicted feelings about her wartime affair with a since-deceased SOE agent (and friend of Major Bradley) called Jack Duggan a major part of the story, but one of the novel’s other characters is also heavily affected by the events of the war too. Needless to say, this novel’s characterisation is really good too – although it mostly focuses on Mirabelle, all of the novel’s other main characters have fairly realistic motivations, flaws, emotions etc… too.

In terms of the writing, it’s really good. The novel’s third-person narration is written in a fairly “matter of fact”, but slightly formal and descriptive/atmospheric, way that really fits in well with the novel’s 1950s settings whilst also being more readable than an actual 1950s novel would be. If you’ve read other books in the series, then the writing is up to the same standard that you’d expect but – to my delight – this novel also contains more fast-paced moments that, surprisingly, work really well with this writing style 🙂

As for length and pacing, this novel absolutely excels 🙂 At an efficient 274 pages in length, there are very few wasted pages here. Plus, the novel’s pacing is really superb too. Not only does this novel slowly increase the scale, pace and intensity of the drama (gradually going from being a detective novel to a thriller novel), but even the slightly more moderately-paced earlier parts of the story are still mysterious and suspenseful enough to keep you gripped. Although this certainly isn’t the first “Mirabelle Bevan” novel to include elements from the thriller genre, they are used in the best possible way here and this whole novel was even more compelling than I’d expected 🙂

All in all, this is probably my favourite “Mirabelle Bevan” novel so far 🙂 It’s a really brilliant and atmospheric historical detective novel that, thanks to some well-handled additions from the thriller genre, is also a really gripping and streamlined story too 🙂

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

Review: “The Sinner” By Tess Gerritsen (Novel)

Well, I was still in the mood for a thriller novel. So, I thought that I’d take a look at Tess Gerritsen’s 2003 novel “The Sinner”, which I ended up finding a second-hand copy of online shortly after enjoying Gerritsen’s “The Apprentice” about a month or so earlier.

Although this novel is the third novel in Gerritsen’s “Rizzoli and Isles” series, it can probably be read as a stand-alone story. However, at least one of the story’s sub-plots follows on from “The Apprentice”, although there are recaps during these parts.

So, let’s take a look at “The Sinner”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS (although I’ll avoid revealing whodunnit).

This is the 2010 Bantam (UK) paperback edition of “The Sinner” that I read.

The novel begins in India, with an American man called Howard Redfield taking a taxi to a remote rural area. The driver refuses to take him any further, so Howard makes the rest of his journey on foot. When he arrives at his destination, he sees nothing but burnt buildings and the remains of funeral pyres. Taking out a camera, he begins to document everything before he notices a woman walking towards him. As she gets closer, Howard sees that her face is missing.

Meanwhile, in Boston, medical examiner Dr. Maura Isles is finishing a routine autopsy on a heart attack victim when she gets a call from Detective Rizzoli. Isles drives to a local convent called Graystones Abbey. In the chapel, one nun has been murdered and another one has been taken to hospital in a critical condition. There are no witnesses, the press is starting to become interested in the case and, worst of all, Isles’ ex-husband has recently arrived in town and wants to meet up with her.

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it’s a fairly compelling and atmospheric detective thriller with some drama, horror and medical thriller elements too.

In terms of the novel’s detective elements, the story is the kind of police procedural that you would expect. Interestingly, Dr. Isles is more of a main character in this novel than she was in “The Apprentice”. So, whilst there are still quite a few scenes scenes of Rizzoli questioning witnesses and investigating crimes, this novel spends quite a bit of time in the autopsy room. These autopsy scenes, along with a couple of more ominous moments, also help to add some elements of horror to the story whilst also introducing various medical mysteries and/or tantalising clues for Rizzoli to follow up on.

Interestingly, this is one of those detective stories where the mystery is actually more interesting than the solution. It is a case with lots of plot twists, a side-mystery or two, clues that can easily be missed and grim moments and it is really compelling. However, although the later parts of the story are certainly dramatic, some parts of the conclusion felt a little bit random and there wasn’t really enough foreshadowing about the identity of the killer. Yes, the resolution of some other elements of the main mystery still provide a satisfying dramatic payoff, but I’d liked to have seen more clues about the killer.

In terms of the novel’s thriller elements, they’re fairly decent. In addition to lots of small plot twists, tantalising clues and a fairly fast-paced writing style, this novel also includes a few moments of suspense and horror to keep the reader on their toes too. Likewise, in true thriller fashion, there’s also a fairly good mixture of small-scale and large-scale drama too. This novel is a fairly compelling one that is well worth binge-reading over a couple of evenings.

Plus, as mentioned earlier, this novel also contains some fairly effective horror elements too. In addition to several grisly autopsy/ crime scene scenes, there are also a few scenes set in creepy locations, some moments of suspense, some character-based/psychological horror, some disturbing plot elements and some scenes of medical horror too. Although this isn’t really a “horror novel” as such, it certainly takes influence from them during a few moments and, like a classic 1980s splatterpunk horror novel, this isn’t a novel for the easily shocked.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is really good. It is written in the kind of informal, fast-paced and matter of fact way that you’d expect from a thriller. However, the novel also takes the time to focus on things like descriptions and characterisation too, which really help to add a lot of extra atmosphere to the story too (eg: the story’s wintery setting etc..). Likewise, although this story includes it’s fair share of medical terminology and jargon, this is often written in a way where the meaning is either obvious from the context and/or explained well enough.

As for the characters, this novel is really good. Not only is it good to see more of a focus on Dr. Isles, but Rizzoli is still very much Rizzoli too. In addition to solving the mystery, both main characters each get a more drama-like sub-plot (revolving around their ex-partners), which allows for a lot of extra characterisation too. Likewise, although the bulk of the characterisation focuses on Rizzoli and Isles, there is still enough characterisation to make you care about many of the background characters too. However, although the novel does explain the killer’s motive and identity, I’d have liked to have seen a bit more characterisation for this character.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At 416 pages, it’s a little on the longer side but it never really felt padded. Likewise, the novel is reasonably fast-paced, with frequent clues and moments of drama keeping the plot compelling and moving at a fairly decent pace. Although you shouldn’t expect an ultra-fast paced novel, this novel certainly moves at a good enough speed for a detective novel 🙂

All in all, although I slightly preferred Gerritsen’s “The Apprentice” to this novel, it’s still a really good detective thriller story 🙂 If you want a police procedural story with a bit of extra drama and horror, and a wonderfully wintery setting, then this one is certainly well worht reading.

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

Review: “England Expects” By Sara Sheridan (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d take a break from reading spin-off novels and take a look at a detective novel that I’d planned to read about two or three years ago. I am, of course, talking about Sara Sheridan’s 2014 novel “England Expects”. This was part of a boxset of the first three of Sheridan’s “Mirabelle Bevan” novels that I was given by a family member for Christmas in 2016.

At the time, I read the first two books (but only got round to reviewing the first one) and also ended up getting a copy of the fourth one . A couple of months ago, I ended up reading the fifth novel because I couldn’t find my copies of the third and fourth books at the time. Needless to say, they turned up shortly afterwards and I’ve been meaning to read them ever since.

Although “England Expects” is the third novel in a series, it can be enjoyed as a standalone novel. Yes, you’ll get slightly more out of it if you already know the characters from the first two books, but it tells a fairly self-contained detective story.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “England Expects”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS.

This is the 2016 Constable (UK) paperback edition of “England Expects” that I read.

The novel begins in Brighton in 1953. It is a bright summer day and Express reporter Joey Gillingham has just arrived in the city to investigate a story. But, since he has a bit of time to spare, he decides to stop off at a local barbershop for a shave and a haircut. Whilst the barber goes into the backroom to get some tea for Joey, a mysterious man strides into the shop and slashes Joey’s throat.

Needless to say, ex-military intelligence officer turned debt collector and unofficial detective Mirabelle Bevan is intrigued when she hears about the murder. Her friend and colleague, Vesta, has other things on her mind though. Her partner Charlie has proposed to her and she isn’t sure whether to accept or not, because she worries that it might affect her job with Mirabelle. So, the case provides a welcome distraction for her too.

Not only that, the lead detective on the investigation (McGregor) is shocked to hear that one of his detectives has moved Joey’s body before he had a chance to examine it and that Joey’s notebook is missing. And, after someone dies in suspicious circumstances at the local masonic lodge, it soon becomes clear to all concerned that the case is more complex than it first seemed….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a fairly compelling detective thriller novel, which is a little bit like a blend of classic Agatha Christie, modern historical fiction and a hardboiled detective novel. Even though it has a couple of small flaws, the novel has a fairly good historical atmosphere and a plot that becomes more thrilling as the story progresses.

In terms of the novel’s detective elements, they’re fairly good. There is the usual thing about seemingly separate crimes turning out to be part of the same case, and the investigation includes a really good mixture of Agatha Christie-style questioning scenes, some suspenseful sneaking around, a couple of red herrings, a few Sherlock Holmes-like deductions and a few elements that wouldn’t be out of place in an old hardboiled crime novel. These elements work really well and it’s really cool to see an Agatha Christie-style mystery, but with a slightly grittier and more hardboiled edge to it 🙂

The novel’s thriller elements, which mostly consist of suspenseful spy-like snooping and a couple of more dramatic moments, appear more prominently in the later parts of the story and help to keep things fairly gripping. Likewise, one of the major themes of this novel is secret societies, which helps to add a bit of extra suspense and drama too – even if this topic is handled in a rather cheesy and/or stylised way during some parts of the story.

In terms of the novel’s historical elements, the novel has a really impressive historical atmosphere and, like in many of Sheridan’s other novels, is also critical of the problems and narrow-minded attitudes lurking behind the twee respectability of 1950s Britain. Although this element of the story is mostly handled well, a couple of moments would probably have worked better if they had been handled in a more subtle way.

The novel also includes some rather amusing satire – such as in the opening scene involving the Express reporter (who, for example, wants a conservative military haircut). Not to mention that, if you’ve ever visited the modern version of Brighton, it’s fascinating to see what the city would have looked like during the 1950s (with, for example, the Royal Pavillion being in a state of disrepair etc..) too.

In terms of the characters, they’re really good. In addition to seeing a few familiar characters from other novels in the series, the characters all seem like fairly realistic (if mildly stylised) people with realistic motivations, imperfections and personalities. The characters really help to add a lot of drama and historical atmosphere to the story and are probably one of the best parts of the novel.

As for the writing, it’s really good too. This novel’s third-person narration is formal and descriptive enough to add some historical atmosphere to the story, whilst also being “matter of fact” enough to be fairly readable and relaxing too.

Likewise, the novel’s length and pacing are really good. At an efficient 271 pages in length, the novel never feels bloated. Likewise, although some of the earlier parts of the story are closer to a slower-paced traditional detective story, the story gradually becomes more thrilling and fast-paced as it progresses in a way reminiscent of classic vintage thriller novels like Agatha Christie’s “N or M?” and classic hardboiled detective fiction.

All in all, this is a compelling historical detective thriller. It’s an atmospheric and intriguing blend of traditional Agatha Christie-style fiction and more hardboiled fiction that combines it’s detective and thriller elements really well. Yes, there are some small flaws, but it is still a good novel.

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

Review: “N Or M?” By Agatha Christie (Novel)

Well, after seeing a vague comment on an online newspaper article mentioning a cleverly-placed clue in Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel “N or M?”, I was curious enough to track down a second-hand copy of it. This also reminded me of when, in 2009, I ended up reading Christie’s “And Then There Were None” after someone partially spoiled an unusual element of the ending (which made me curious enough to read the rest of the book to see if it was even possible to end a novel in this way).

Anyway, let’s take a look at “N or M?”. Although this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS, I’ll avoid major ones.

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I read the 2015 Harper (UK) paperback edition of “N or M?”, but I won’t include an image of the book cover here due to the presence of a WW2-related symbol. Although the book is clearly anti-fascist and the stylised cover art is meant to reference the story’s historical setting/context, I still thought that it was probably best to err on the side of caution with regard to displaying the cover.
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The novel is set in early 1940. Middle-aged couple, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford are sitting around and feeling thoroughly miserable. Despite some past work for the government, they are considered to be too old for war service. But, after asking around, a military intelligence officer called Grant reluctantly offers Tommy a desk job in Scotland. However, when Tuppence is called away by a phone call, Grant tells Tommy that he’s needed for a mission of national importance.

A British agent has been murdered by German spies. His last message indicated that the spies were connected to a guesthouse in the seaside town of Leahampton called Sans Souci and there were two unidentified spies, going under the code names “N” and “M”. Given a false identity and warned not to tell his wife, Tommy sets off for Leahampton in the hope of winkling out the German spy.

Needless to say, it isn’t long before another guest shows up at the Sans Souci. Having pulled off a clever ruse and overheard Grant’s orders to Tommy, Tuppence comes up with a false identity of her own and decides to unofficially join the investigation. Even so, with everyone at the guesthouse suspicious in some way or another, the two undercover investigators have their work cut out…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it was surprisingly different to what I’d expected. Instead of a Poirot-like murder mystery, this novel is slightly more of a “topical” vintage spy thriller, albeit one with lots of elements from the detective genre. Interesting, although the first half of the novel reads a lot more like a detective/spy story, the second half is somewhat closer to the thriller genre than you might expect.

In terms of the novel’s detective elements, they’re the sort of thing that you’d expect to see in an Agatha Christie novel 🙂 Almost everyone is suspicious in some way or another, there are lots of subtle clues (that are explained at the end), a few red herrings, some clever twists and a solution that, whilst technically possible to guess, will seem both logical and surprising at the same time.

In terms of the novel’s thriller elements, although they’re more understated than a modern thriller novel, they still work really well. In the earlier parts of the novel, there is more of a focus on subtle suspense, secret identities, spy tricks and suspicion, with the second half of the novel having very slightly more of an adventure thriller/crime thriller like tone to it, with an emphasis on more dramatic types of suspense.

Interestingly, the novel blends these genres in a really clever way. Whilst the identity of one of the two spies is revealed in a more thriller-novel type way, the identity of the other is deduced from clues in a more detective novel-like way. Still, both genres support each other really well with, for example, the suspense about whether Tommy and Tuppence can maintain their cover and the fact that everyone around them is suspicous making the detective elements seem a bit more dramatic.

The novel’s historical context is fairly interesting too and it adds a lot of atmosphere to the story. Not only does this novel contain a surprisingly nuanced reflection of attitudes towards WW2 (which are, at times, more pessimistic than you might expect), but a scene where a character predicts that the war will last six years is eerily prescient (again, the novel was first published in 1941). Likewise, the novel also taps into the fears of a “fifth column” of German spies that seemed to have been a concern at the time.

Plus, although the novel shows that Britain was somewhat unprepared during the earlier stages of WW2, there’s a heartwarming “we’ll muddle through this” attitude to the story that was probably even more reassuring when the novel was originally published. Even more interestingly, looking on Wikipedia, Christie was actually investigated by MI5 after this novel was published since one of the characters is called “Major Bletchley”.

As for the novel’s writing, it’s really well-written. Yes, the novel’s third-person narration is – by modern standards- slightly on the formal side of things, but it is still very readable (after all, this book was mainstream popular entertainment in the 1940s) and the style really helps to add a bit of extra atmosphere to the story too.

In terms of the characters, they’re fairly well-written too. In addition to lots of witty dialogue between Tommy and Tuppence, they’re also presented as being a vaguely realistic middle-aged couple rather than expert detectives. Yes, they’re fairly intelligent, reasonably good at picking up clues and fairly courageous, but there’s a real sense of uncertainty (eg: about who the spies are, about whether they are in danger of being revealed as investigators etc..) that really helps to make them even more realistic and sympathetic characters.

The relatively large cast of characters are, as you would expect from an Agatha Christie novel, fairly realistic and complex. Almost all of the guests at the Sans Souci do or say something suspicious at some point in the story, with most of these things having logical non-spy related explanations. Likewise, the novel’s villains are – as you would expect- suitably chilling and/or menacing too.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At about 243 pages in length, it never really feels bloated or over-extended. Likewise, whilst this novel is probably slightly moderately-paced by modern standards, the level of drama and suspense increases quite a bit in the second half of the novel. And, at the time that it was written, it was probably considered a more fast-paced thriller. Likewise, the novel also drip-feeds the reader clues and suspenseful moments in a way that really keeps the story compelling too.

As for how this seventy-eight year old novel has aged, it has aged really well 🙂 Yes, there are a few mildly dated moments in the story, but it is still a relatively fast-paced and compelling vintage thriller story. A lot of the novel’s subtle humour and witty dialogue still works, the characters are still compelling, the mystery is still compelling and the thriller elements are still suspenseful. Plus, as mentioned earlier, the story’s writing style is still fairly readable too (if a bit more formal than a modern novel).

All in all, this novel is a fairly interesting vintage spy/detective novel. Yes, it’s a bit different to Christie’s more famous “Poirot” stories, but it’s still compelling, atmospheric and intriguing. Plus, if you’re a fan of Sara Sheridan’s “Mirabelle Bevan” historical detective novels, then you’ll probably enjoy this story too.

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