Review: G J Minett – The Hidden Legacy

A glowing review from Crimepieces’ guest reviewer Rachel Hall of a debut novel .

Launched in November 2015 it is hard to see what has kept this exceptionally well-written psychological thriller from gaining more critical acclaim. Subtitled ‘a dark and shocking psychological drama’, this is an intelligent, intriguing and most of all, well-constructed mystery. The accomplishment for a debut author cannot be overstated and it would seem an injustice that Graham Minett remains under the radar.

Opening with a shocking prologue from twelve year old schoolboy, John Michael Adams, as he commits a horrific attack upon two girls in a school playground in 1966, this is a story which hooks you right from the off.   Readers are presented with a glimpse into the mindset of a child driven to a despicable act whom the national press soon dub “Every Parents Nightmare”.

Fast forward to 2008 and meet harassed Ellen Sutherland, newly divorced and combining a full time job with the demands of single parenting and a mother succumbing to the frailties of dementia. The arrival of a solicitors letter asking her to make urgent contact regarding the last will and testament of Eudora Jane Nash leaves her flabbergasted. The name means nothing to her and she assumes it is simply a clerical error. When the overly sincere solicitor suggests a meeting, Ellen laughs off the idea of making a six-hour round trip. That is until it is disclosed that she has been bequeathed a picturesque cottage in a Cotswolds village of significant financial worth. Remaining unconvinced she mentions the name Eudora Nash in passing to her mother and her boss, a man who is like a father to her, and can sense she has ruffled some feathers and from then on decides to delve deeper. With the accompaniment of best friend Kate making for a brilliant contrast to the staid Ellen, the pair set out to discover just what has been hidden for so many years.

From then on the reader remains with present day Ellen and interlaced between her narrative are extracts from the deceased Eudora Nash and John Michael Adams. Despite the traversing timeline, the novel intuitively flows well and readers can sense a stylistic differing between each narrator which keeps the story moving. With Ellen uncovering all of this in the present day she adds a sense of solidity to the novel. As questions arise, Minett tackles them in a timely manner yet always remains one step ahead and as each layer of intricacy is peeled back he constantly surprises his readers. It is a considerable time since I have read such an ingenious plot construction from a psychological fiction novel.

Over the intervening years the story of the John Michael Adams is disclosed and offers an insight into a minor who remains a media target for vilification, seemingly fair game for a witch hunt to uncover his whereabouts and identity upon release. The portrayal of him as a man unable to make a fresh start paints a moving portrait of a life spent running away and the shifting ground underneath him. Minett never dictates to his readers how they should interpret the wider issues which he raises through The Hidden Legacy and it is hard not to imagine how child murderers are punished by the media which never allow these things to be forgotten.

Ellen has mixed emotions about her relationship with her mother, specifically regarding her unwillingness to talk about the past, yet she is wracked with remorse as she rushes up and down the country hunting the mystery surrounding a ninety-one year old lady who she has never met whilst her ailing mother grows weaker. My overriding thought throughout the novel related to just how much a person can jeopardise in blinkered pursuit of a long held secret and the risks that this necessitates.

Whilst unputdownable is often used ad nauseam in reviews Graham Minett does not put a foot wrong in this captivating and emotionally involving story. As each layer of intricacy is uncovered he never resorts to sensationalism in his consideration of a teenage murderer or falls back on the overly twee pull on the heart-strings. This is a moving and often profound example of the psychological fiction genre and poses numerous questions leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions.

The Hidden Legacy may not be one of the heralded psychological thrillers but is deserves to be one of the most widely read and establish G.J. Minett as a striking new talent in the increasingly crowded market of psychological fiction. Outstanding.

 

Review: K T Medina – White Crocodile

White-Crocodile-cover1For a debut novel to stand out, it has to offer something special to the reader. I’ve read few crime books set in Cambodia and it’s not a country that has ever tempted me to visit. However, in the tradition of the best reading, I was completely pulled into the world created by K T Medina. White Crocodile is a story of violence and revenge against the backdrop of mine clearance in a country still recovering from conflict.

The white crocodile of the title refers to the symbol of fear and death according to a Cambodian myth. Its legend is evoked by locals in response to a series of fatalities in an area which is being cleared of mines by a humanitarian charity. Tess Hardy has taken a job with the organisation in order to investigate the death of her ex-husband, Luke. Although her marriage was characterised by violence, in her last conversation with her ex she could hear fear in his voice. When she arrives in Cambodia, she discovers that teenage mothers are disappearing from local villages and are later found mutilated and killed.

White Crocodile has a compelling narrative that grabs you right from the start of the book. At the outset there is a suspicious explosion that maims one of the other mine clearers and it’s not clear if Johnny is a victim or implicated in the conspiracy that surrounds all the killings. As the plot develops, Tess’s personal history, the killing of the outcast women and a murder investigation in Manchester are interweaved into a compelling narrative.

Medina cleverly makes sure that Tess Hardy is on equal footing with the other protagonists. She is a mine clearer in her own right and saves the life of Johnny using a mix of bravery and knowledge of  land mines. This means that in a setting of vulnerable women, despite Tess’s abusive past, she seems an intrepid and determined seeker of truth.

White Crocodile is one of the best books I’ve read this year and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Thanks to Faber for my review copy.

Review: Sarah Hilary – Someone Else’s Skin

imageThe misery of domestic violence has occasionally been depicted in crime fiction but it’s a subject that’s difficult to read about. There’s enough violence, intimidation and hatred in the situation that victims find themselves in without adding a murder investigation into the mix. But Sarah Hilary has done very well to do just that; set a killing in a home for victims of domestic violence without it seeming gratuitous or exploitative.

Detective Inspector Marnie Rome is in charge of an investigation to discover why a man has been wounded in a women’s refuge. Although it initially looks like a case of lackadaisical security in a place for those looking to escape violence in the home, Marnie soon discovers more complex relationships exploiting the stresses of vulnerable people.

This is a difficult book to review as to go into the plot in any depth would give away too many spoilers. There are a number of twists and turns, one of which I saw coming, which in no way spoilt my enjoyment of the book. There narrative is multi-layered and, like the best crime novels, the lines between victim and villain are often unclear.

This is a debut novel for Sarah Hilary and the first in a series featuring Marnie Rome. She has managed to give us something new with her detective inspector. Marnie has her own secrets which she partially gives up towards the end of the novel. I suspect there are more to come.

Thanks to Headline for my review copy.

Review: Paul Doiron – The Poacher’s Son

Every now and then I pick up a book that I have absolutely no expectations of whatsoever. I’ve not read any reviews, never heardThe Poacher's Son of the writer nor the book, and I’m reading it solely because of the novel’s premise. Of course this can be a mixed blessing as reading is such a subjective experience. However you can come across some gems this way and my latest find was The Poacher’s Son by Paul Doiron, a writer who I will be reading more of in the future.

Mike Bowditch is a game warden in Maine who returns home one evening to find a rambling message on his answer machine from his estranged father. Hard-drinking and violent, Jack Bowditch left Mike’s mother when he was small and despite a couple of attempts  by Mike to bond with his father, he now keeps a distance from the man who makes a living from illegal game poaching. However, when he discovers that Jack is on the run from the police, accused of shooting a local cop, Mike is torn between his instinctive loyalty to his father and the demands of his job. When it becomes clear that Jack is being set-up, Mike gambles his career and his life to discover the true versions of events.

I think this is the first book I’ve read set in Maine, a US state that I know little about and whose location I had to look up. However the setting was a major attraction of the book and like the novels of CJ Box and Nevada Barr, we see the landscape through the eyes of a professional worker. However, Mike Bowditch has an off-hand attitude towards his employment and his loyalty is stretched even further when familial ties prove strong. The book gave a persuasive portrayal of the complexity of relationships and how superficial alliances can hide deeper attachments.  All the characters were well drawn particularly Mike’s mother who has escaped from her trailer park upbringing and and is enjoying suburban life with her lawyer second-husband.

For a first novel, it was paced very well and with a genuine surprise towards the conclusion. It was also well written with an engaging narrative voice. A very accomplished début by Paul Doiron who I can see  has gone on to write two further books. Hopefully these we will see these published in the UK in the near future.

I received my copy of this book from the publisher, Constable and Robinson. Other reviews can be found at Raven Crime Reads and The Lighthearted Librarian. The author’s website is here.

Review: Tanya Byrne – Heart Shaped Bruise

I’ve noticed recently the growing popularity of crime books aimed at young adults but read by a wide variety of ages. I don’t set out to read YA fiction, mainly as I prefer books written for an adult audience but very occasionally I read a book that clearly crosses the genre and explores issues that have a universal appeal.

Heart Shaped Bruise by debut author Tanya Byrne  is written in the form of a notebook that is found on top of a wardrobe when Archway Young Offenders Institution is closed. It tells the story of Emily Knoll, who is infamous inside the institution and beyond its walls for the heinous crime she committed. Much of the book records the interactions that take place in sessions with Doctor Gilyard, her psychiatrist. We learn that Emily assumed a false identity to befriend a girl whose actions caused Emily’s father to end up in prison and that she is now awaiting trial. The book moves at a swift pace towards the book’s climax and leaves the reader with some interesting questions.

Heart Shaped Bruise was an enjoyable read full of compelling characters. The narrative of Emily, and her alter ego Rose, dominates the book and although we perhaps don’t get that much insight into why she is as she is, we are drawn into her desire for vengeance against Juliet. The relationship between Juliet and her boyfriend Sid is perhaps where we see why the book has been targeted to a young adult audience. Exams, parties, pressures of nurturing friendships and relationships are explored alongside the jealousies that can build up in a stressful environment. The narrative moves well between the past and present, highlighting Emily’s freedoms before her crime and the restrictions of her present incarceration.

The ending was satisfactorily oblique and my only gripe would be with a couple of blurbs comments which suggested a ‘twist’ in the ending which, to my mind at least, wasn’t there. Judging by the Q & A section with the author at the end of the book it seems that Byrne’s next novel is firmly aimed at a young adult audience so it may well be the only book that I read by this writer. But it was an enjoyable, easy read on a subject that will appeal to all ages.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: Tom Grieves – Sleepwalkers

Sometimes it’s useful to be reminded why I started reading crime fiction in the first place. Over the years, as I’ve read more books and discovered new writers and sub-genres, I’ve come to appreciate the subtleties of crime novels. Characterisation and location play an important role in what I choose to read, as does plot which I’ve noticed has become more and more complex, away from the traditional whodunnits of the classic crime era. However, what I once loved about crime novels when I started reading them as a teenager, was their sheer readability. I used to pick up a book and read it all the way through and look up and a couple of hours had gone by. Now that is no longer possible with the demands of home and work, and also, I thought, because books have increased in length so significantly. However, last week I read three books in a row that had that ‘unputdownable’ factor and one book, in particular, I read straight through (with a couple of tea stops). This was Tom Grieves excellent début novel Sleepwalkers.

Ben is an ordinary family man who keep experiencing violent dreams and has unexplained gaps in his childhood and more recent memories. His wife, Carrie, is supportive and reassuring but he is plagued by the conviction that something is wrong in his psyche. As his paranoia increases he is forced to confront the veracity of his own identity. Toby is a schoolboy also experiencing violent dreams and missing pieces of his memory. His parents repeatedly change his school rather than confront his problems. However in his latest school, his teacher, Anna, decides to take an interest in his case and the complicated lives of Ben and Toby suddenly converge.

The book starts out in traditional thriller mode, with a strong sense of the sinister and the dream and memory elements of Ben and Toby possibly having a supernatural cause. Happily (without giving too much of the plot away) this doesn’t turn out to be the case and the book explores instead the idea of a society within a society where a mixture of Orwellian forces and medical advances make it possible for a smoke and mirrors deception on a grand scale. It’s a very difficult book to review in detail without giving essentials of the plot away. However, I can say that although I’m not up on scientific processes I thought the whole concept fascinating and compelling.

The book is predicated on the idea that no-one is really who they seem. The writing and narrative style reminded me of the books of Michael Marshall (Smith) and I think this novel would appeal to his fans. Grieves, according to his biography, has worked in television as a script editor and producer and this novel started out as a script for TV that he couldn’t sell. A quick scan through Goodreads and Amazon reviews reveal that many people, as I did, picked up the book and couldn’t put it down which gives an idea of the compelling nature of the story. I hope that  this will be the start of a successful novel writing career for Grieves.

I received a copy of the book from the publisher, Quercus. The book has also been reviewed at Bookbag and Book Geeks.

Review: Elizabeth Haynes – Into the Darkest Corner

There has been plenty of news coverage in recent years of that most modern of phenomena – stalking. It is a crime that is often (but not always) perpetrated by men against women and occasionally it results in violence and death. It’s not a theme that I’ve particularly noticed in my crime fiction reading. I tend to avoid psychological thrillers and I also find the whole idea of obsession to be very upsetting. However I recently read Elizabeth Haynes’s excellent Into the Darkest Corner which I found to be a thoughtful and gripping thriller.

The book opens with the notes of a court case taking place in May 2005 and the interrogation of a Lee Brightman by the prosecuting counsel. Lee has clearly been stalking a woman called Catherine Bailey, and the questioning implies that Lee is either a policeman or a man in a position of authority. The book then alternates between the events of 2003/4 when Catherine meets and enters a relationship with Lee, and the present day where Cathy is attempting to rebuild her life. She clearly fears for her safety and has developed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder which causes her to check and re-check her flat every morning and evening. She meets a tenant in the flat upstairs, Stuart, who urges her to see a doctor friend of his and relationship between Stuart and Cathy slowly develops. However, the past and present are about to meet…

The  most successful aspect of this book was how some of the clichés of the psychological thriller genre were slightly skewed. Lee is revealed to be a policeman and therefore we as readers, as well as Catherine/Cathy, are forced to reconsider where places of safety can be found. The parallel narratives work well because although Cathy clearly considers herself to be under threat, she is also attempting a new relationship which is developed alongside the unfolding of the older abusive one. Again, as a reader we scrutinise the gentle Stuart more because of the way Lee duped Cathy.

Haynes is also very good at showing how Catherine changed from an outgoing, sexually active young woman to someone desperate to avoid human contact. Some parts are difficult to read. I found Lee repulsive from the very beginning and although I could see how he would be attractive to a girl like Catherine, I was mentally imploring her to stay well away from him. There is also an interesting take on female friendship which  I found to be entirely realistic and added an extra dimension to the book.

The fractured nature of the writing, moving between different periods perfectly suited this style of book and I’m looking forward to reading more of this author.

I bought my copy of this book. Other reviews can be found at Petrona, Eurocrime and It’s A Crime.

Review: SJ Watson – Before I Go to Sleep

If August has been designated my ‘catch-up’ month, then this is a book I really should have read before now. Before I Go to Sleep, the début novel by S J Watson won numerous plaudits when it was published last year, including the 2011 CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger, and became a Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller. Perhaps inevitably for a book that was so hyped it also failed to impress some reviewers and a quick glance at the Goodreads site shows a bewildering mix of one to five star reviews. So after being lent a copy by a friend, it was with some trepidation that I opened the book.

The story is fairly well known, but in summary the female protagonist, Christine, wakes up every morning and has to begin her life all over again. She suffers from a condition that means every time she goes to sleep she forgets the last twenty years or so. She is unaware that she has had an accident, that she is married to a man called Ben or has had a son who was killed in Afghanistan. The book is narrated through Christine’s eyes so we as readers see her dislocation every morning when she wakes up and has to rediscover her life afresh.

However Christine discovers that she has been seeing a doctor who has encouraged her to keep a notebook of her daily life. By picking up this notebook every morning, at first because of reminders from Doctor Nash and then through instinct or a gradual recovery of her memory, Christine discovers that  Ben has deliberately been withholding information about her life. As Christine tries to piece her life together, Ben suggests they go away for the week-end….

The greatest strength of this book was its ability to draw you into Christine’s story. It’s a great idea, a plot where the potential victim has to rediscover the menaces in her life every day. I think in relation to Christine’s illness you really do have to suspend your disbelief. I find it difficult to believe that someone who has had that level of care over the past twenty years is suddenly released into her home life without any involvement of the social services and that her husband Ben has found it so easy to repel doctors from contacting Christine.

I found it a page turner up to the point where Christine goes away with her husband and the writer is very good at keeping enough suspense to make you want to continue reading. Perhaps inevitably the denouement was slightly disappointing and again required you to suspend reality. But overall I thought it a good idea, and for a début book well executed.

The book has been reviewed by scores of publications including The Guardian and The Independent. Blogger’s reviews include Eurocrime, Mysteries in Paradise, Petrona and Crimesquad.

Review: Michael J Malone – Blood Tears

I first read this book in manuscript two years ago when Michael was looking for a publisher. I thought the story was both riveting and tragic, portraying the reverberations years later of child abuse in a Scottish children’s home during the 1970s. The book was published by Five Leaves Publications earlier this year, which gave me a chance to revisit the characters in Blood Tears.

Detective Inspector Ray McBain is a Glasgow detective investigating the death of a murdered man who has wounds identical to stigmata. The victim is quickly identified as a paedophile who once worked in a Catholic children’s home, Bethlehem House. McBain travels to the orphanage to retrieve a list of children who came into contact with the murdered man and removes his own name from this list in front of his new DC Allesandra Rossi. This omission has serious reverberations for McBain as the killings continue and he becomes the main suspect. He is now forced to try to prove his innocence while simultaneously investigating the case from afar.

Blood Tears has been marketed as ‘Scottish Catholic noir’ and in fact this is a very good description of the book. The novel follows the tradition of many other excellent Scottish police procedurals and McBain in particular has a lovely stock of Scottish phrases which made this English reader smile. There is also a strong Catholic theme to the book. The children’s home was run by a religious order of nuns and the current mother superior was a particularly vicious member of the community who remembers Ray as a child. The book is very good at depicting how the terrors of childhood can make a grown man fear for his own sanity. There is also a sense of unfinished business in relation to the Church although Ray’s one attempt to attend a religious service ends disastrously. The darkness that runs through the book provides the ‘noirish’ feel and the interspersed passages from the killer’s point of view show how disturbed the individual is by past events.

The book isn’t all darkness though. There is a grim humour throughout, particularly the passages involving Ray McBain. He is clearly his own worst enemy and yet as the book shows he was abandoned first by his (living) parents and then by the institution that was supposed to look after him. The irony that he then chose to go to a seminary after leaving the children’s home and then ended up in another institution – the police – isn’t lost on the reader.

The book is an excellent début and I would certainly read more the series. I doubt I’ll be lucky enough to get a sneak preview of the manuscript next time…

I bought my copy of this book. Other reviews can be found at The View from the Blue House and Crimesquad.

The author’s website is here.

Review: Anya Lipska – Where the Devil Can’t Go

Following Poland’s entry into the EU in 2004 there was a rapid influx of Polish migrants into the UK. Although London had long been a centre for the Polish diaspora, most notably following regime changes after the Second World War and during the early 1980s, the influx in the last decade created a new set of tensions within the community. Where the Devil Can’t Go is a crime novel that embraces these various periods of the Polish diaspora and provides an excellent thriller set in the hear of the migrant community.

Janusz Kiszka has lived in London since the 1980s and after a series of construction jobs now works as a general fixer, sorting out matters on behalf of his Polish friends.  He has been successful enough to buy a flat in the once down-at-heel Highbury Fields, in a building now shared with young professionals. He is asked by a priest, Father Piotr Pietruzki, to find Weronika, a respectable young Polish girl who may have disappeared with her boyfriend Pawel Adamski.

Meanwhile, DC Natalie Kershaw investigates the death of a woman pulled out of the Thames, possibly from a drugs overdose. When a second body appears and both girls are linked to the Polish community, Janusz is investigated as a possible suspect. Janusz’s mistrust of the police means he refuses to hand over vital information and he continues on his hunt for the missing girl. This quest takes him to the seedier parts of London and on to Poland where he is followed and attacked. It is only by joining forces and pooling their collective information do Janusz and Natalie finally put together the pieces of a complex case.

The main strength of this book was the depiction of the Polish community in London. In the course of the narrative, Lipska takes you from the East End Olympic construction site, with its steamy cafes doling out familiar dishes to homesick Poles, to Embassy receptions where former communists and exiled aristocrats rub shoulders. Janusz’s journey back to Poland is fascinating, seen through the eyes of someone who has been living outside the country for over twenty years. His feelings of homesickness and dislocation are very powerful. There is also a strong sense of Polish history interwoven into the book. Janusz was originally involved in the Solidarity movement but is bitter about its legacy and the motives of the people involved.

The investigation involving DC Natalie Kershaw was nicely done, particularly the relationship with her unreconstructed male superior, DS Bacon. Lipska portrays well the calls on police time and resources which means that even murder cases have to be prioritised. My only complaint is that the switch between Janusz and Kershaw narratives didn’t always take place between chapters or even scenes but this may have been a fault of the way my kindle copy was formatted.

I thought this was an excellent début novel and well deserves to be read in print as well as an e-book. There was a freshness to the writing and the depiction of the community was fascinating, including some interesting insights into the workings of Polish Catholicism. Hopefully we will be seeing more of Jasnusz and Kershaw in future books.

Where the Devil Can’t Go has also been reviewed by Petrona, It’s a Crime!, A View from the Blue House and The Game’s Afoot.

The author’s website is here.