I’ve started reading in earnest for this year’s Petrona Award so a lot of my reading has been from the Nordic countries. I’m not neglecting home-grown authors, though. Below are reviews of four crime novels by British writers that I’ve read recently.
Minette Walters is a favourite writer of mine. Her debut novel, The Ice House, would probably make it into my top ten crime books. Unlike other writers, her books have got shorter over time but retain the focus on the darkness that’s often hidden behind closed doors. The Cellar is the story of Muna who is kept as a slave by the Songoli. Unable to remember her early childhood, Muna beneath her calm exterior plots her revenge. It’s more a horror tale than crime novel but an excellent and compelling read.
I’m a fan of Michael J Malone’s novels and poetry and his new book, A Suitable Lie, marks a change in direction from him. He tackles the difficult and emotive subject of domestic violence in a realistic way and the book was a very moving read. It’s difficult to say more without giving away spoilers but its my favourite of Malone’s works so far as he grapples with a subject shrouded by innuendo and shame.
Rebecca Bradley is a former CID detective and her wealth of experience comes across in her books. Made to be Broken is set in Nottingham where a poisoner is wreaking havoc on the city. It’s good to see a police team where the reverberations of a previous case are still being felt and you know you’re in safe hands with Bradley’s writing. The city of Nottingham is well depicted and I loved the clever murder plot.
I read For Reasons Unknown by Michael Wood as the author was appearing at a festival I was having at my local village. It’s a top-notch police procedural that draws on the authors experiences as a journalist in Sheffield. The writing is superb and the book certainly didn’t read like a debut. Wood is a writer to watch.
I enjoyed the first outing of Glasgow detective Ray McBain. Blood Tears combined an emotive issue (abuse inside Catholic children’s homes) with an enjoyable and well-written murder plot. The follow-up has just been published and, in my opinion, is even better than the first. A Taste of Malice has a slightly more subdued feel to it, but again addresses difficult issues involving the abuse of children, this time within the family by someone you trust.
McBain is back at Glasgow CID but has been sidelined and told to keep his nose clean. Desperate for something to do, he hones in on two old cases, where a woman has inveigled her way into a family and found ways to manipulate and torture the children. He goes on a search for the woman, reinterviewing the children involved and following a cold trail. Meanwhile, in Ayrshire, another young family gratefully accepts help from a stranger who enters their lives. However, the mother’s loss of memory is masking deeper problems within the family that are ripe for exploitation.
Michael is an expert storyteller and in A Taste for Malice, we get two distinct plot lines that only merge in the final part of the book. The first, the investigation by McBain, sees him struggling with the trauma from his previous case in the face of Departmental indifference. Only his colleague, Allesandra Rossi, is prepared to assist him as he attempts to dig deeper into the abuse cases. The story of the family struggling to cope with the wife’s memory loss is suitably creepy and it is unclear for a fair amount of the book how the two cases converge. McBain is an attractive character. His childhood scars make him both vulnerable and prickly and his sex life is suitably tempestuous.
The book was an enjoyable and disturbing read. As well as appealing to those who enjoyed Blood Tears, it will also hopefully garner some new readers for this series.
Thanks to the writer for sending me a copy of the book.
Today is National Poetry Day in the UK, when we celebrate the work of poets from around the world. The theme this year is ‘stars’ and how the wonder of the universe has been expressed in in poems. More information can be found on the official website.
So what’s a post about poetry doing on a crime fiction blog? Well, the link between poetry and crime fiction is not as tenuous as it might seem. A fair few poets have also been crime writers including Raymond Chandler, Dorothy L Sayers, Cecil Day Lewis, Karin Fossum and Sophie Hannah. WH Auden, fascinated by the detective story, wrote a poem using the elements found in crime fiction as an allegory for an individual’s journey through life. Poets have even made it as detectives – with PD James’s erudite Adam Dalgliesh.
To celebrate National Poetry Day, below is a poem by crime writer Michael J Malone. I’ve chosen it because I like it, Michael’s a friend of mine, and I think we all need a bit of poetry in our lives.
Once above a time, as a boy
I pressed against a fence
watching deer play in enclosed abandon.
My teeth pierced an apple’s firm flesh
and ten noses quivered
at the sweet scent waltzing on the wind.
A young doe
skuffed at the turf
edged towards me
nose hooked on the fragrant line.
While her friends skirted
the unwritten ring of safety
her brown eyes appealed,
her tickled nostrils craved.
While one hand held the fruit
through the chain-meshed fence
the other hovered in awe
over the soft brush of hair
that garlanded her head.
The barrier diluted
she permitted my touch;
satin streaming over rock
peace suffused me.
Once again above a time,
now a man, you offer me
the benediction of your kiss.
‘Privilege’ is from Michael’s poetry book In the Raw
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.