Review: Sarah Lotz – The White Road

I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading about Everest and K2 after listening to the audio of Michael Conefrey’s excellent Ghosts of K2. I’m most definitely an armchair mountaineer despite living the Peak District. My enjoyment of these hills are confined to marches up my local ‘low’ to visit the henges when I want break from my writing. However, I love reading about people in extreme situations and how they behave in almost intolerable conditions. Sarah Lotz’s new book, The White Road, takes this premise and has produced a fascinating thriller.

Simon Newman is an adrenaline junkie who works for website Journey to the Darkside which caters for ghoulish viewers. On the hunt for the bodies of three cavers who perished underground, he persuades Ed to take him to a cave in Wales. When the trip ends in tragedy, a video of his near-death experience goes viral. To capitalise on its success, Simon’s partner persuades him to sign up to a trip to Everest. There he meets a group of people whose reasons for being on the mountain range from the adventurous to the tragic.

It’s always great to read something a bit different and Sarah Lotz has produced a thriller where the tension comes as much from the landscape as the plot. She cleverly contrasts the claustrophobia of a subterranean disaster alongside exposure to the elements on Everest. There’s also a nice contrast between the single foe Simon faces in the caves and the cast of characters he meets on the mountains.

Despite Simon being the protagonist and narrator, the subsidiary characters are given plenty of depth which makes this for a thoughtful as well as thrilling read. One of my favourite books this year.

Review: Antony M Brown – The Green Bicycle Mystery

The Green Bicycle Mystery is part of the Cold Case Jury series published by Mirror Books. The real-life murder of twenty-two year old Bella Wright in 1919 achieved notoriety partly because of the bucolic Leicestershire setting and by the shocking nature of the killing, the victim was shot in an isolated country lane. The green bicycle in the case is connected to a suspect who was seen in the vicinity of the murder, later thought to be Ronald Light who hid his bicycle for months afterwards and then disposed of it in a canal.

In the book, Brown meticulously sets the scene of a rural Leicestershire village reeling from the effects of the Great War. Bella is part of of close knit family who cycles to post some letters she’d written that afternoon. Brown makes a good job of re-imagining the conversations firstly of the family and then of the police and other witnesses after her body is discovered. The police come off particularly well. Bella is initially thought to have died in a cycling accident until a police constable discovers a .455 cabler bullet near the body.

Light, a shell-shocked former solder, is eventually arrested for the crime and is tried at Leicester castle. I won’t give any spoilers as to the result although the case is pretty famous as one of the trials defended by Sir Edward Marshall-Hall. At the end of the book, readers are given the view of the author as to the likely scenario that led to Bella’s death and then other possibly verdicts that have been suggested by earlier writers documenting the case. Finally, you are invited to share your verdict on coldcasejury.com

Although it takes a while to get going, the book is great fun with a strong sense of the period within which it is set. This is helped by the period cover and helpful case notes within the text. Ultimately, I think  the true narrative of events is unlikely ever to be revealed but the book certain made me read around the case. I was touched to discover that an annual bike ride still take place to commemorate Bella’s last journey.

Review: Martin Edwards – The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards has been much anticipated by fans of classic crime fiction. It follows the success of The Golden Age of Murder, Edwards’ impressive story of the famed Detection Club, and the British Library crime classics for which he’s the series consultant. Impeccably packaged with vintage style covers, the success of the series has opened up classic crime to a new generation of readers.

It must have been a near-impossible task to choose 100 books in which to tell the story of classic crime. In his introduction, Edwards emphasises that the novels have been chosen to emphasise the genre’s development and is not merely a list of the best books of the period. The introduction serves as fascinating summary of the Golden Age as do the chapter headings. The breadth of the themes identified: from serial killers to psychological thrillers,  the origins of many modern day crime fiction tropes can be traced back to the Golden Age period.

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books is a book to both read from cover to cover and to dip in and out of. I found myself doing both, looking for authors I was familiar with and discovering new ones. Some of the books will require determination to track down if you’re inspired to read them which makes the list all the more interesting. It’s a timely reminder that the period of the classic crime is more complex and wide-ranging that is often attributed to it. This impressive volume is a book to return to time and time again.

 

Review: Martin Pearce – Spymaster

Every year at my village in Derbyshire, we have a crime fiction event to celebrate writers and the wonderful books they produce. Previous authors who’ve appeared include John Lawton, Steven Dunne and Zoe Sharp. This years event is entitled ‘Dark Peaks and Strange Shores’ and features Derbyshire writers Stephen Booth and Roz Watkins, Quentin Bates who sets his books in Iceland and Martin Pearce. Martin will be the first non-fiction at the Chelmorton Festival and he’s written a fascinating biography, Spymaster, of his uncle Sir Maurice Oldfield.

Oldfield was the first head of MI6 who didn’t come to the role via the traditional public school and Oxbridge route. He was a farmer’s son from Over Haddon in Derbyshire (where Pearce and the Oldfield family still live), educated at the local grammar school and studied mediaeval history at Manchester university under AJP Taylor. Recruited to intelligence during the Second World War while in Cairo, following the end of the war he joined the Secret Intelligence Service, popularly known as MI6.  To try to summarise Oldfield’s spying career in a review is a near impossible feat. He was in the organisation  at the height of the Cold War and during the unmasking of Kim Philby and the Cambridge Spies, the Cuban missile crisis and the Profumo affair. After his retirement in 1978 he was asked by Margaret Thatcher, to coordinate security and intelligence in Northern Ireland.

Oldfield was a complex figure and his humanity comes across strongly in the book. Intelligent, religious and principled, he inspired extreme loyalty in many of those around him. David Owen, on being appointed Foreign Secretary remembers the awestruck excitement he felt that he’d get to meet Oldfield and Spymaster abounds with tales of Oldfield’s network of friendships nurtured throughout his lifetime.

Oldfield’s Derbyshire background was at the heart of everything he was. He returned to the family farm at weekends, collected works of writers affiliated to the area and fiercely protected the barrier between his personal and private life. Pearce deals  fairly and, at times, movingly about Oldfield’s sexuality which came under scrutiny while he was heading security in Northern Ireland and the subsequent damage to his reputation.

Pearce’s research is admirable and many contacts have been extremely open about sharing information about the cold war years.  I think the books greatest achievement that it takes a man remembered as the prototype for Alec Guinness’s George Smiley and shows us the talent and humanity of  the outsider Oldfield, ‘the most remarkable man to ever have held the post’ of chief of MI6.