Apologies for the sparsity of recent reviews. I’ve being reading loads of excellent crime novels but I’m also editing book four in the DC Childs series (title to be revealed) which is taking up much of my time. It’s exciting and I’ve nearly reached the end of the edits which means I can finally catch up on some reviews.
One of the main reasons I read crime fiction is for the sense of place which, when it’s done well, is seamlessly integrated with a crime plot. Keith Nixon sets his books on the south coast of England, an area he’s very familiar with, and he cleverly captures the mood of edgy seaside towns with their undercurrent of menace. In Dig Two Graves a Margate funfair is the location of detective Solomon Gray’s son disappearance ten years earlier. His loss means that any case involving a child has particular resonance for the cop, even more so when teenage Nick Buckingham falls from an apartment block with Gray’s phone number in his mobile.
Nixon pulls no punches as to the faded grandeur of Margate and the criminality of some of its residents. However, he cleverly offsets it with another murder which takes place inside a church which adds an interesting strand to a sophisticated plot. The impact of missing or dead children is a familiar them in crime fiction (I’ve written about it myself) and it can be hard to bring something new to the genre. However, when combined with a solid plot and realistic characterisation as it is here, it can work well. Written in Nixon’s distinctive gritty style, Dig Two Graves should bring him new readers in what promises to be an excellent new series.
Henning Mankell was, I think, the first Swedish author I read and I enjoyed his standalone books as much as his Wallander series. Mankell died in 2015 and his final book, After the Fire, has recently been published. It features Fredrik Welin who appears in the 2010 novel, Italian Shoes which I haven’t read and I was a bit daunted at starting what might be a difficult book to read without the backstory of the protagonist. As it turns out, After the Fire, works perfectly well as a standalone and was a substantial and interesting read.
Welin lives alone on an island in a Swedish archipelago and wakes up one night to find his house on fire. Although he manages to save himself, he is left with only the clothes he stands in and some money in his bank account. The police suspect that the fire was started deliberately and that Welin might himself be responsible for the destruction of his property. When his daughter, Louise, returns from France to see the remains of the house, old wounds and tensions resurface as Welin struggles to rebuild his life.
I suspected that After the Fire wasn’t particularly a crime novel and, although there’s a criminal act at the heart of the book, it’s as much a novel about loss, family and fragile friendships. Welin is of an age where his friends and acquaintances are infirm or dying and he’s wondering if he has the energy to start afresh. His relationship with his daughter is a difficult read. I found Louise to be incredibly unlikable as a character and nearly stopped reading the book as she’s just so destructive and her motivations are hard to fathom. Better portrayed is Welin’s relationship with the journalist Lisa Modin and his friendship with his former postman Jansson. During the course of the story, Welin has to cope with the gap between what he wants and what others are willing to give him.
Ultimately After the Fire is a satisfying read and left me with a sense of a life picking up. The relationships portrayed are bleak in parts and verged on the depressing which is unusual for Mankell’s writing. There’s certainly a sense of an older man coming to terms with loss and grief and I’d be interested to read of others’ responses to the story.
I’m an admirer of Barbara Copperthwaite’s books. She effectively combines a strong sense of place with intriguing plots and her latest book, Her Last Secret, continues this tradition. Chief Inspector Paul Ogundele is called to a house on Christmas Day after reports of gunfire and is shocked by a discovery. The narrative then tells the story of events leading up this and the secrets which threaten to overwhelm the family.
Copperthwaite effectively builds up a portrait of an outwardly ordinary family, parents Ben and Dominique and their daughters, Ruby and Mouse. The author explores one of my favourite themes: families and the secrets that they carry around with them. Mouse is the most intriguing of the characters. Bookish and introverted, the family appear at times unaware of her presence. Gradually the true nature of the individual characters are revealed and most, while unsympathetic, are entirely believable.
The dual timeline, the first beginning on the 17th December, interspersed with what the police discover on Christmas Day works extremely well and I found myself turning the pages to discover what caused the carnage. As much a character study as psychological thriller, this is the author’s best book yet and will appeal to fans of Ruth Rendell who miss her unique take on the weirdness within families.
Last year we were treated to The Mistletoe Murders by PD James, a collection of of four short stories that had previously appeared in various publications. It was a joy to read over Christmas and a reminder of James’s talent. This year, Sleep No More gives us six new stories which will delight fans of the author and again draws us into a world where nothing is as it appears.
The most festive of the stories, ‘The Murder of Santa Claus’ narrates the story of a murder seen through the eyes of a small boy. Like with the first story, ‘The Yo-Yo Murder’ James reminds us that childhood is a curious mix of innocence and kept secrets and that children are adept at making decisions to protect adults.
Like her contemporary, James excels at depicting the disfunctionality within families and the continuing tensions of married life. ‘The Victim’ and ‘A Very Desirable Residence’ are prime examples of this and the author cleverly misdirects the reader throughout.
My favourite of the collection is ‘The Girl Who Loved Graveyards.’ Again with a child protagonist, the story is unusual, poignant and slightly downbeat and I think it’s one of the best I’ve read from the author.
I’m sure fans of PD James will already have this book on their list. It made me return to one of her novels, An Unsuitable Job For a Woman, as I wanted to remain in the unique world she created. James was a remarkable author who influenced a generation of crime writers and I’m sure will continue to do so.