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.
I have a kindle that I use at night when I can’t sleep. It creates a different reading experience than that of a physical copy but I’ve greatly enjoyed some of my nocturnal books. The great thing about kindle is that it encourages me to try out new authors and crime sub-genres I’m less familiar with. No Ordinary Killing by Jeff Dawson is set in 1899 South Africa, during the Boer War. Conflict, of course, is a perfect time, when scores are being settled on a wider scale, for crimes of a different nature to be perpetrated. Dawson has produced a strong thriller with something to say about how we wage our battles.
Ingo Finch is a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps who is called to a body discovered in Cape Town who turns out to be one of his colleagues. Convinced that the explanation for the murderer is too pat, he sets out to discover the background to the killing but is soon called into battle. Meanwhile, Mbutu Kefaleze is on the run across the Karoo with a group of villagers pursued by soldiers. They meet a mute woman and her young daughter who tell of the slaughter of their settlement by ‘devil soldiers’, men who faces were covered by strange masks.
The two storylines are equally strong and each with their own mystery and I was drawn into both scenarios. Finch meets Annie Jones, an Australian nurse and a female point of is particularly needed, I think, in a setting which is dominated by men. Annie’s back story is interesting and a foreshadow of many of the nurses of the Great War who left families to gain freedom and employment in the medical corps.
Dawson’s writing style is an intriguing mix of John Buchan style adventuring and well researched period detail. He creates a South Africa full of superstition, mistrust and political intrigue. Images of slaughter and bloodshed are never far away which contrasts with the clear class tensions in the British Empire and superior attitudes towards the indigenous population. I enjoyed the book and it kept me turning the pages (or rather swiping the kindle screen) until the end. A very strong debut.
I’ve followed the Ngaio Marsh Award for New Zealand crime fiction from its inception and it’s been heartening to see the competition go from strength to strength. The Last Time We Spoke by Fiona Sussman is one of the shortlisted entries and rightly deserves its place there. The award’s creator, Craig Sisterton thought I’d enjoy this book and he was right. I’m very much concerned about the portrayal of the impact of a crime on a community and this novel focuses on the psychological legacy of a devastating act on two individuals – Carla Reid, one of the victims and Ben Toroa, the perpetrator.
Carla is the victim of a terrible act of violence which results in the death of her son and her husband seriously injured in an attack in their home. The decisions she is forced to make after the investigation is completed and the media have moved on to other stories are heart wrenching. Salvation comes in the unlikely form of people around her. An Asian neighbour struggling to make New Zealand her home and a doctor who lost his family in the Balkan conflict provide glimpses of the possibility of a future for Carla.
Ben is realistically although less sympathetically portrayed. His life was already on a collision course and it as a matter of time before tragedy occurs.Maori culture and history is woven into Ben’s story and the lack of hope and expectations contrasts with the lost future of Carla’s much loved and longed for child. The detention centre is brutal but its close confines offer Ben a structure in which to redeem his own future.
The Last Time We Spoke is beautifully written and takes you into the heart of two survivors stories. It’s an incredibly moving book and deserves a much wider audience. I wish it all the best in the Ngaio Marsh competition.